The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The nation’s no-good back-to-school choices have left parents worried and solutions available only to some

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Not in a class. Not with a mask.

Not in a house. Not with a mouse.

I do not want a screen to teach my kid. I also do not want to opt for “hybrid.”

I do not like our back-to-school choices for the fall. I do not like them, nope, not at all.

I am lying in the dark, on my younger son’s bottom bunk, when those words come to me. We’ve just finished reading a children’s book and I am listening to him and his older brother, who is on the top bunk, talk about the one-legged toad that jumped into their bug-catching net at a nearby pond that afternoon.

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Soon, their voices will grow quiet and their breathing steady, and I will head to work, which means I will walk to another room in the house.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, my brain, like the brain of many working parents, was skilled at compartmentalizing. It knew how to process complex concepts during the workday and then shift into a different gear to answer the never-thought-of-that-before questions that tend to come from young children at bedtime. Why are some birds red? Who decides the name of cars? How do people know the Easter Bunny is a bunny if no one has ever seen him?

But now, four months into working full time and parenting full time in the same space, I sometimes answer important emails while baking Shrinky Dinks and occasionally, without intending, process grown-up problems with children’s rhymes.

It’s as if in those moments, my mind hasn’t yet shifted out of mom-mode when the adult thoughts I’ve been pushing aside nudge their way in. Once that resulted in this line: “There was an old man who swallowed a lie. I don’t know why he swallowed that lie. Surely America won’t let that fly.”

I’m not suggesting these rhymes are any good. They’re not. They’re a side effect of pandemic parenting.

They’re also always about what is most causing me stress, frustration or worry, and lately I have felt all three of those about the no-good choices that families across the country, including mine, are facing when it comes to sending our children back to school.

On a political level, the issue has become a tug-of-war.

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have called for schools to fully reopen and for children to return to learning full time, in person, by the fall. Trump even threatened to cut federal funding for districts that do not reopen.

‘I wouldn’t trust you to care for a house plant’: Democrats blast DeVos for insisting schools fully reopen

Democratic lawmakers and educational leaders have pushed back, expressing concerns about the ability of school systems to open safely. Coronavirus cases continue to rise at concerning rates in some places.

And while young people seem less likely to fall seriously ill from or die of the virus — a point DeVos made Sunday — they have fallen seriously ill and died of a severe inflammatory syndrome that has been linked to covid-19 and shares some characteristics with Kawasaki disease. Students also come in contact with teachers and staff members and go home to adults who may have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to illness or death.

Imagine being that child whose cough costs them their mother or father.

I have thought about that kid lately. I have also thought about what happens to families if schools don’t open their doors but workplaces require parents to show up. Some schools have committed to fully reopening, but many are electing to offer virtual classes or a hybrid structure that calls for a mix of in-person and virtual learning. All of those options will bring challenges for children, and unthinkable ones for some.

Imagine being a 9-year-old left to watch two younger siblings.

Imagine being a 15-year-old who was already struggling with school, for whom one virtual year will lead to a second year of missed classes and then another.

Imagine being a 4-year-old left in the care of an adult who isn’t equipped to take care of you and has an apartment filled with other children whose parents had no choice but to accept the cheapest child-care option available.

These are our country’s no-good choices, and if we push politics aside, what we are left with are worried, stressed-out parents who all just want the best for their children.

What we are not left with are any creative, widely available solutions to a problem that will affect families across the nation and has the potential to widen the educational gap between those children whose parents can afford to make sure they stay on track and those children whose parents can’t.

Already, parents of young children with the means to look for creative educational opportunities are doing so. When schools closed early, they paid for learning kits from places such as KiwiCo and Little Passports to be delivered to their homes.

Now, with the next school year uncertain, many have started exploring home schooling and “microschooling,” which involves families partnering up to form small classrooms led by either a parent or a paid educator. That situation still carries some risks of exposure to the virus, but in a more limited way than returning to a school building. It also frees up parents to work and offers children some socialization.

But what about those kids who don’t get a box in the mail filled with parts to build a kaleidoscope, or who don’t have a tablet or the Internet access to follow along with a teacher virtually? What about those children whose parents face the choice of losing their livelihood, and all that is balanced on it, or guiding them through their schooling?

How much energy at the federal level has been dedicated to finding possible solutions for those children that go beyond just shoving them back into school buildings and seeing what happens?

How covid-19 has laid bare the vast inequities in U.S. public education

I have been stressed about finding the right situation for my own children in the fall, but I have been more worried about those children. My kids will be fine. Many of those children, we know, won’t be. Even before a microscopic threat made us all retreat from one another, test scores, dropout rates and other academic measurements showed us that we needed to do more to address educational inequities, which in the Washington region also fall heavily along racial and ethnic lines.

The other day, while thinking about the school year those children might face, a possible solution occurred to me. What if college students were offered the chance to receive class credit or a reduction of their student loans for volunteering to guide small pods of children through their virtual classes? The costs would be minimal and the potential payoff significant. Those college students would receive hands-on educational experience and exposure to children whose backgrounds may greatly differ from their own. And the students would get parents who can go to work feeling less stressed, in-person guidance for their class assignments and a daily reminder that college is also a possibility for them.

Then again, maybe it’s a bad idea. Maybe it has holes I didn’t consider. Maybe someone who actually holds the power to put in place a creative solution to make sure school systems don’t fall further from the goal of educational equity has a better one.

After all, I am not a policy expert or a lawmaker. I am just a working parent whose tired and tangled thoughts during this tiring and tangling time sometimes come out in rhymes.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

A dying fish, a beloved dog and a parenting lesson, of sorts

An 11-year-old boy’s killing isn’t proof black lives don’t matter to black people. It’s proof of our collective failure.

Now that private schools know what it’s like ‘being black’ on their campuses, will they do what they ask of their students — learn and do better?