Schoales: Would I Send My Kid to School This Fall? Some Things to Think About, and Some Advice, for Families Facing This Dilemma

I get asked daily what I would do if I had a child entering school this fall. While every family situation is so different, I can share my perspective as a parent (though my child is now an adult), a former school leader, a consumer of research on how schools are responding to COVID and the son of a virologist who worked with many coronaviruses for 50 years.

Since we now know that the COVID-19 virus will be here to stay for the long haul, here’s what I would suggest, given the start of school in about a month:

  • Expect more of your school: I would make sure my school and district have a detailed plan now for classrooms and what they will do if the school has to go virtual. This cannot be just some fuzzy description of how schools might have A/B days, pods or some other strategy for bringing students back to class. It has to be a plan for individual students and classrooms. Given that schools receive about $13,000 to educate each student in Denver, for example, I would demand it.
  • Plan to be on your own: I would have my own contingency plans for what to do without the help of a school. Schools and districts have enormous variations in their capacity to address student needs during this pandemic; some have stepped up with daily supports, while others have sent weekly packets with little communication. Far too many districts lack consistent, up-to-date communication regarding supports for students, or have chosen not to teach new material. Most school leaders and teachers are as stressed as families are in trying to navigate this crisis, and we need to give grace. I would advocate for the school to support my child, but I would not depend on it. There is a chance I’d be on my own.
  • Track the COVID virus and testing in your community: A safe return to school will depend not only on what the school does to contain the spread of the virus but also on whether COVID cases are rapidly growing in your community. Relative to other places, Denver has recently had less growth in COVID cases, but they are still growing at an unacceptable rate. I am also concerned about my local government’s ability to effectively shut down spikes if our testing still takes a week or more to get results. The turnaround on COVID testing must be within a day or two so schools can act to curb the virus spread.
  • Keep up on COVID research and research on schools (and don’t be snookered by the misinformation): Look to websites like Johns Hopkins and maybe your state health department (assuming it has not been politicized, as in Florida). Much of the research suggests that students ages 10 and younger are less likely to spread the virus or get very sick. For older students, the research is mixed. However, there is a huge risk for older adults working in school buildings. The bottom line is that as much as I want kids to be in class, I would not send my child to school with growing COVID cases and a dysfunctional community testing system that does not provide rapid results.
  • Beware of online-learning hucksters: I, like most of you, am inundated with emails from online schools promising remarkable student engagement and learning. A+ Colorado recently put out a report on online learning that pulled research from across the country. The bottom line is that most online schools are terrible for most students. Some online classes work for some kids, and I would want my kid in some online learning, but I would want to limit and curate the experience. There are some great courses at the university level, and opportunities to encourage students to read new books (use your local library), keep a journal or take on some hobbies, such as tending a garden, training a pet or playing music.
  • Look to friends, family and neighbors for help: I know this may be impossible for many families. However, some interesting solutions may arise through reaching out and trying to solve for your own schooling challenges. I know of several families who have made impromptu homeschooling arrangements with other students. There are so many resources and ideas out there.

This is such a hard time for families. Many are struggling to do their work or face layoffs, and everyone I know is laboring to find and/or design activities for their kids beyond screen time (assuming they have access to screens and the internet — far too many do not). I also know that for many, having more family time is a silver lining, with daily dinners and opportunities to interact with their children. There are no simple answers to making difficult decisions, with school reopenings a month away and situations changing weekly. It all depends on the family, the school and the community.

Van Schoales is the chief executive officer of the nonprofit “action tank” A+ Colorado. He has 30 years’ experience leading education reform efforts from the classroom to the statehouse. He has also helped found a number of other nonprofit groups, including the Odyssey School, Denver School of Science and Technology, Democrats for Education Reform Colorado, Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools, and Chalkbeat Colorado.

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