In pursuit of in-person learning this year, Stephanie Koski of Oregon transferred legal guardianship of her 16-year-old son to his aunt — then sent the teen to live in Texas.
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Elder family’s hometown as Westland, Ore. It is West Linn, Ore. The article has been corrected.
“Almost every night, I have my windows open,” said 13-year-old Leo Metta, whose bedroom sits above a restaurant, “and I fall asleep smelling focaccia.”
Otherwise, Leo said he hates Italy, which the family chose because they thought it would offer face-to-face schooling and because Leo’s father is Italian and has dual citizenship. The children also have dual citizenship and grew up speaking some Italian at home.
But contrary to his family’s expectations, Leo’s school wound up staying closed most of the time. And he finds the curriculum confusing, built around oral exams that reward students’ ability to recall seemingly arbitrary facts — such as the significance of female armpit hair in the 1800s. Also, Leo misses his friends and the long walks he used to take in the Pennsylvania woods.
He wants to return to America: “Tomorrow, if I could.”
But for other families that also took this most extreme of steps — switching counties, states or even countries in search of in-person schooling or sports amid the pandemic — things turned out better. In some cases, the results surpassed their hopes; another example of how the pandemic has deepened inequity, allowing some privileged parents to escape remote schooling while other households lacking money or connections remain stuck at home.
That was the case for Pia Decarsin, who has dual French and American citizenship and moved this summer from Northern Virginia to Provence, France, with her husband and two children. Inside French classrooms, Decarsin’s 7-year-old daughter has rocketed to a third-grade reading level. Meanwhile, day care for her 2-year-old costs half what it did in the United States.
“It’s very pretty here and the prices are very low, even for things like camps,” Decarsin said. She signed her daughter up for horse-riding lessons, always prohibitively expensive in the D.C. area.
The Decarsins originally viewed their relocation as temporary, a stopgap solution meant to fill time until Arlington Public Schools started offering face-to-face instruction. But now, like many who moved during the pandemic, the Decarsins are rethinking their plans.
Even as U.S. vaccinations proceed apace and most American school districts promise they will offer full, in-person learning next fall, some transplanted families feel conflicted. They have grown attached to new homes, new friends — in some cases new cultures, foods and languages they’re beginning to master.
As one academic year draws to a close — and registration looms for the next — many are faced with a choice. Do they return to their former life? Or embrace one radically different from anything they ever envisioned?
Heidi Goldberg, a single mother in D.C., moved to small-town southern Massachusetts in July for its in-person schooling. Almost a year later, her second-grade daughter is thriving academically and loving her visits with Goldberg’s parents, who live nearby. Goldberg herself has grown enchanted with quiet morning walks on the beach, so different from “rowhouse life” in a crowded, urban neighborhood. Her new dog, named Tillie Kamala in honor of Vice President Harris, keeps her company.
But Goldberg’s daughter longs for her friends back home, constantly asking her mother when she will see them again. And Goldberg misses her own friends. She’s been able to do her nonprofit job remotely, but she knows career opportunities are better in D.C. And she is desperate for the kind of casual-but-passionate conversations — “talk about what’s going on in the political world, or what kind of work you do” — prevalent in the nation’s capital but lacking, she said, in her slice of Massachusetts.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Goldberg said. “You’re catching me at an indecision moment in my life I never thought I’d hit.”
'It was just better to be here'
Cynthia Kummer believes the move from Portland, Ore., to Naples, Fla., in early January saved her eldest son’s life.
Formerly a straight-A student, the 13-year-old earned marks as low as 60 percent online, which devastated his self-confidence. Then he began suffering emotional tantrums at random moments. Soon, he was telling his parents almost every morning that he didn’t want to leave his room — or even get out of bed — because there was no point.
Kummer realized she was facing a crisis when her son brightened at the idea of attending his grandfather’s funeral, because it meant seeing people in-person.
“That’s when we decided to take a leap of faith and move to Florida” for face-to-face schooling, she said. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to lose this kid.’ ”
Kummer’s husband was able to keep his job, because he is a self-employed entrepreneur, and Kummer is a stay-at-home mom.
In Florida, where schools have been open throughout the academic year by order of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), her son has become a completely different boy.
He’s made scores of friends. For the first time in months, he told her he cares about school. He has joined the lacrosse and cross-country teams, getting up before dawn to make 7 a.m. practices.
Kummer said she will not risk returning to Oregon, even though schools there launched reopening efforts this month. She plans to keep her family in Florida until both her boys graduate high school.
“I would never have thought of moving here, because I have always been a West Coast girl,” Kummer said. And in February they sold what was supposed to be her family’s “forever home” in Portland in a friendly cul-de-sac where “everyone knows everyone.”
“But when your son starts falling apart? You do anything you can to keep him around,” she said.
Pia Decarsin said she and her husband recently decided to extend their stay abroad for at least another year.
It was not an easy choice, despite the beauty of their surroundings in Sisteron, a rural town of about 8,000 near the Alps. Neither she nor her husband know anyone there, and it’s been hard to make friends. Most other adults work in construction, or run olive oil or lavender farms — leaving them little in common with the Decarsins, whose careers revolve around international politics, Decarsin said.
She and her husband kept their American jobs, but the difference in time zones has led to a lot of late nights.
But her children’s academic needs outweigh everything else. Arlington Public Schools classrooms have been closed for most of the pandemic. France, however, has managed to keep its schools open: Since last March, the French have shuttered classrooms for roughly 10 weeks total, even at the expense of closing restaurants and bars. That makes a stark contrast to the American approach, Decarsin noted.
“All our decisions have been motivated by our children’s well-being and education,” Decarsin said. “In a pandemic, it was just better to be here.”
'I would not do it again'
Others are giving up the experiment and heading home.
Adrienne Metta is leaving Italy and taking her family back to Pennsylvania at the end of this school year. Online learning in Italy is a mess, she said, because teachers and officials did little to prepare, compared to their American counterparts. She has been anxiously — a little jealously — watching the rollout of remote-schooling programs back in the United States.
Also, her children need to resume some semblance of a social life, she said. The constant lockdowns in Italy have rendered it impossible for them to make friends here.
“I do not think two years of this would be good for my kids,” she said. “The truth is, if I had the chance to do it over, I would not do it again.”
Meanwhile, Lyra Elder in Alaska — against the wishes of her children — recently returned the family to their house in Westland, Ore.
The family moved to Alaska last August after online schooling led to “so much screaming and tears and sadness,” Elder said. She chose the small town of Homer for its in-person learning, but also because it’s where she grew up and where two of her brothers still live with their wives and children.
The benefits were immediate: Her third-grader, Audrey, and kindergarten-aged son, Kenneth, started making progress in school again. Their faces lit up every morning when they spotted the school bus. Every afternoon, 6-year-old Kenneth listed aloud everything he learned that day.
Given Homer’s low coronavirus case rates, restaurants remained open. Rural Alaska also opened a new range of outdoor activities, including fishing and hikes with views of Homer’s harbor.
One special evening, Elder’s sister-in-law led the whole family to tide pools near the ocean. Under the light of a full moon, they hunted for an octopus den.
When they found the octopus, it wrapped its tentacles around Kenneth’s hand, then up his arm, and refused to touch anyone else. The other kids called him “the Octopus Whisperer.” The name stuck — to Kenneth’s delight.
But as vaccinations proceeded, Lyra Elder and her husband felt they had to go home to Oregon. Her husband’s work seemed likely to start requiring in-person attendance, and they hoped their public school system would start opening back up, too.
Since the Elders’ return, their school district has started offering hybrid instruction. Students spend two days a week inside classrooms and the rest learning virtually.
“But my daughter, ” Elder said, “keeps asking, ‘Why did we ever leave Alaska?’ ”
A tough decision
Grant Strother is unsure what to do next school year — stay in Leander, Tex.? Or head back home to Oregon?
The 16-year-old, who moved in with his aunt in November, misses his family and friends in Salem. And he misses Oregon itself, “one of the most beautiful states in the Union.” Texas is dry and hot by comparison.
But he doesn’t miss the dreariness of online schooling, when every day was the same: a long, dull blur of doing nothing. Life in Texas, by contrast, moves fast.
Grant has to be up by 7:30 a.m. every morning so he can eat, pack his lunch and leave for school, where everyone wears masks and tries to stay socially distant. Class ends at around 2:30, when he heads to the weight room with the rest of the baseball team. That’s followed by baseball practice, which runs until 7 p.m. After that, Grant barely has time to eat dinner and whip through his homework before he falls asleep.
“It’s good to feel like you’re doing stuff,” he said. “I feel normal again, and just grateful for every day.”
The pandemic school year
Students, guardians and teachers experience a very different school year as the coronavirus disrupts the country’s education system.
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