“We don’t know if we will have a second wave,” said Quameice Harris, a mother of two preschool students and a high schooler at Capital City. “You want your kids to be safe, but you also want the people around them to be safe. We don’t want to lose any more people in our community to the coronavirus.”
As the Trump administration pushes for schools to reopen this fall, many parents are clamoring for as much classroom time as possible, eager to get working and to get kids learning. There’s momentum toward reopening at least some days for some students, as New York recently announced and as D.C. is expected to announce soon.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that students be physically in school buildings this fall, noting the detrimental effects that being out of classrooms can have on a child’s development. Health officials acknowledge they don’t know enough about how kids spread the virus, to each other and adults, but research points to them being less likely to get infected.
Still, among many D.C. parents, especially in neighborhoods hit hardest by the virus, an opposite sentiment is scrambling schools’ plans. Fearful of the virus, which has spiked in some states and is creeping back up in the District, they don’t want their kids in school at all.
Surveys in a number of school districts, including the District, show that a majority of parents would send their children back. But a strong minority say they intend to keep their children home. And that preference is strongest in D.C. communities where students are considered high risk for academic loss, but where they have also seen parents, friends and relatives disproportionately become sick and die from the virus.
In Prince George’s County, more than 40 percent of the nearly 20,000 parents, students and teachers surveyed in the majority-black district hit hard by the pandemic said they wanted to continue with virtual learning. In Fairfax County, the school district’s decision to allow students to return to in-person classes two days a week was met with protests from parents who wanted more class time.
In the District, a citywide survey last month determined that just over 50 percent of 15,000 respondents said they would send their children to school in the fall. But a quarter said they would not send their students back in the fall, opting to continue full-time with virtual learning. Another quarter said they were unsure.
In Wards 7 and 8 — neighborhoods with the District’s high concentrations of poverty, and the city’s highest covid-19 death rates — more than 40 percent of families surveyed said they preferred to keep their children home. Families in these wards are also more likely to rely on public transportation to commute to school, adding an additional layer of risk to their calculations about fall.
“I don’t know what I’m feeling,” said Ta’Nikka Massey, a mother of three in Ward 8. She has been impressed with her children’s distance learning and is unsure if she will allow them to return to school in the fall. “Why are they opening up everything? The virus hasn’t gone anywhere.”
The D.C. survey found that parents of older children were slightly more likely to want to keep their children home in the fall, which makes sense: Distance learning is easier for teens than young kids; and for many parents, schools are the reliable child care that allow them to work during the day. But Massey says her mother, who lives with her, has been watching the children while she works her security shifts in downtown Washington. If she keeps her kids home, she’ll extend that arrangement into the fall.
Other parents have weighed the risks and are willing to take them, putting pressure on the school system to find middle ground.
Vanessa Magana’s 6-year-old son has Down syndrome and had a successful kindergarten year. But has not been able to receive the occupational and physical therapy he typically gets at school since March. The child has failed to meet his development goals, according to Magana. She and her mother, who live together, notice he struggles to concentrate during virtual classes.
“I know we are in uncertain times,” Magana said. “But if I can get my son in school three days a week, I will be happy.”
Efforts to reopen are also complicated by many teachers’ reluctance to return. Tensions brewed this month after the D.C. school system sent staff a memo asking them to declare — and sign — whether they plan to return to school in the fall or stay home. The teachers union told its members not to sign the form.
Paul Kihn, the District’s deputy mayor of education, said bringing teachers and students into physical classrooms is the ultimate goal, but he acknowledged that they need to be confident it is safe. Once parents understand the logistical details, which are expected to be announced soon, they will be more ready. For example, he said, once the city tells families their plan to ensure that public transit is clean in the fall, he thinks parents would be more comfortable putting their children on buses and trains.
“I think a lot of uncertainty exists from some families because they do not have a clear vision of what school would look like,” Kihn said. “Once families understand what those plans are and understand what school will look like, I think they will increase their confidence.”
Winning that trust may be difficult, though, even in more affluent neighborhoods that haven’t been hit hard by the virus.
Paige Ela, a mother of two children near the Tenleytown neighborhood of Northwest Washington, said her two elementary-aged children are struggling with virtual learning. Too much screen time, she said, has been leading to emotional outbursts.
But she is also skeptical that school buildings will be equipped with the proper air ventilation to safely pull off reopening. While many traditional public school campuses in the District’s low-income neighborhoods are under-enrolled, they are often over-enrolled in upper-income neighborhoods, making it harder for parents to envision how schools will be able to pull off social distancing. A spokesman for D.C. Public Schools said the school system is working with engineers to determine what it needs to do to safely open schools.
Ela and a group of parents, along with the teacher advocacy group EmpowerEd, started a petition calling on the school system to explore the possibility of teaching children, particularly younger ones, outside, where health experts say the virus is less likely to spread. The petition has more than 2,000 signatures. In Denmark, schools have been teaching some classes outside.
“Their brains are forming so quickly and they need this stimulus and they need it in so many other ways then just in this technology,” Ela said. “Until there is a vaccine we have to think creatively on how we solve this education issue.”
At Capital City Public Charter School, the risks feel too high. Officials there said they listened to parents and decided to go all virtual for the first months of the academic year. Instead of investing extra money in personal protective equipment and daily cleaning, the school is spending more money on its virtual learning offerings, said head of school Karen Dresden. She said the plan could change, and while there are families who want to return, she has not received pushback.
For Harris, this was the right call. She also lives with her 80-year-old stepfather, whom she fears could contract the virus. Her local government job permits her to work from home. Her husband works night shifts, allowing them to care for their infant and three school-aged children during the day.
She has had to have a hard conversation with her eldest son every time the school notified families that a parent died of the virus. She doesn’t want to do that again. And she fears what would happen to her children’s mental health if schools opened and then abruptly closed again.
“Taking them in and out of the building,” she said, “is not how we want to start the school year.”