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Confused about going back to school? COVID-19 isn’t the only consideration

Those kids from stable homes need school, no question. But kids whose homes are more chaotic need more aspects of school.

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Stephanie Harrill, Skyline High School custodian, cleans chairs to get ready for the start of school at Skyline High School in Millcreek on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

My teacher friends are divided on whether they want to be in the classroom in just a few weeks while COVID-19’s still circulating. Parents are divided, too, balancing health risks against how best to educate children and how to free parents up to get back to work.

I have one friend who worries if she’s exposed, her husband could suffer; he’s immune-compromised. Another has medical issues that could lead to very personal risk. And a younger teacher friend is wary for other staffers who might be especially vulnerable.

But they mostly want to do what’s right for the kids they’re going to teach. That’s a much more complicated issue.

Marjorie Cortez and I have been talking to health care providers and educators, parents, child development experts and others to gauge the sentiments surrounding school. It turns out that any decision will impact people so differently there genuinely is no one right answer for how to handle the upcoming year.

COVID-19 definitely is no joke. As I write this, my sister-in-law is on a ventilator in an intensive care unit in an Arizona hospital. COVID-19 is a devastating, scary deal to us.

Even knowing that doesn’t make decisions surrounding school easy. What I’ve gained from talking to so many people about school during a pandemic is understanding and appreciation of the risks — but also of the role schools play in a community, extending incredibly far past the whiteboards and lessons.

Parker Huston, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, puts it this way: “I think the whole truth is schools provide a place to check in for a lot of kids who have a difficult home life or situation outside of school.”

For children with special needs or who are hungry or who are abused or at risk of abuse, school takes on sometimes many added roles.

If we were wondering just about kids with stable home lives, the calculation would be one driven purely by health considerations for students, staff, teachers and all their families.

Those kids from stable homes need school, no question. But kids whose homes are more chaotic need more aspects of school. They need the watchful eye of outside adults who might spot signs of neglect or abuse. Others need the attention of trained experts who could detect a learning disability or know how to teach children for whom learning is not simple or who can tell when a child’s really disengaged and for whatever reason apt to be left behind.

Some of that can be done from a distance if educators, parents and others work together. It’s easier with older kids than with younger ones. Some of it will be lost, at least for a while, if children can’t get into classrooms.

One of the big challenges is forging relationships with teachers in a new year if it’s to be done with fewer days or more social distancing restrictions or from afar.

Huston has some advice for teachers who will have to make connections with kids in different ways at least early in the year. Connections help drive what happens all year. He tells the story of a substitute teacher who was asked to fill in long-term and needed to get to know the class. That lovely soul wrote a letter to each child in the class and asked them to write back and include a piece of art in the letter. That back and forth forged unique bonds with each child.

When his daughter, 7, was chafing about being away from friends, Huston encouraged her to do that for her pals, too. Bolstering relationships kids have really matters right now.

The other aspect is facing fears — of going back and of not going back. Parents, he said, need to involve the kids in how they’ll all make do as the year unfolds, especially with the potential for sporadic temporarily closures due to infection.

“I’m not putting my eggs in any basket — home school or in class. I’m preparing myself for everything and talking to the kids,” he said. “We may not go to school at all; we may go a lot. It could be a mixture. Here’s what we will do to make it work.”