Most parents across the United States are facing an unusual choice this school year. The specifics are different from state to state, but the core question is the same: Should we send our children back into physical school buildings in August? 

Depending on the state, parents may have between two and four options. These include returning to a traditional school day, virtual learning on a traditional schedule, a hybrid model with limited classroom time, or opting out of the school system and homeschooling kids. 

In Alabama, most parents will have the option of sending kids back into a modified traditional school setting for full school days or to have kids learn full-time from home. But, each district is running the details a bit differently. If you have school-age children in Alabama, you may have received information about the options your school district is offering. Depending on where in the state you are, you may also have been notified that you have to make a choice quickly, and you won’t be able to switch your preference until the end of the 9-week quarter–or even until the end of the year. 

Other districts have offered few details, although many schools are opening as early as the first week of August. That makes it even harder to make decisions with confidence. 

The Back-to-School Conundrum

What’s Best for Kids? 

Experts and political leaders are at odds over which approach is best, making it difficult for parents to know which advice to rely on. The reason for the conflict and confusion is clear: there are serious considerations on both sides of the issue. 

Most experts agree that it’s not good for kids to be isolated at home for so long, away from peer interaction, the structure of school, and the familiar learning environment. There are also concerns about how effective at-home learning has been over the past few months, and how student outcomes might suffer if the system is extended. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has also suggested that school serves many other purposes for children, such as emotional and psychological support, socialization, and exercise. 

At the same time, the spread of coronavirus is accelerating in many states, including Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. And, new information is emerging about the possible severity of the virus in children. Early hopes that community spread was unlikely among children are fading as summer camps around the country have been forced to shut down after outbreaks among campers and staff. The precautions schools have planned vary from district to district, but most don’t plan to require masks.

In other words, there are good reasons to send kids back to school, and good reasons to keep them home. And–toughest for a parent–it seems that kids will suffer no matter which path you choose. 

And that’s before you factor in practical and financial issues.

What’s Best for the Family? 

Of course, every parent is concerned with what’s best, safest, and most productive for their kids. Working that out is hard enough when there are persuasive arguments on both sides. But, for many families, the decision is even more complicated. Unfortunately, the additional burdens fall most heavily on lower-income families and single-parent households. Many are just as concerned about their children’s safety at school as wealthier parents, but have fewer options. 

Some of the additional obstacles for these families include: 

  • Less flexibility to work from home, meaning that they may have no choice but to go back to work themselves, and so be unable to have younger kids doing distance learning at home
  • Having only one wage earner or needing both incomes to meet basic needs, making it difficult or impossible to keep kids at home 
  • Lack of access to a reliable internet connection and other necessities for successful engagement in distance learning
  • Greater dependence on school meal programs to ensure kids get proper nutrition

Even if families facing these challenges make the difficult decision to send their kids back to school full-time next month, they may still face disruptions and uncertainty. That’s because no one knows exactly what the future holds. We don’t know which areas will have serious outbreaks during the school year. We also don’t know whether gathering children together in schools will trigger outbreaks, as many summer camps did. 

That means parents who do send their kids back to school full time and return to work themselves must be prepared for schools to shut down unexpectedly, either in bursts or for a longer period. Those disruptions could make it hard for parents to keep working unless they have safe and affordable alternative child care options. But, if a school has shut down because students tested positive, go-to solutions like grandparents won’t be available.

Making the Best Decision with the Information Available

The stakes are high for families, so it’s no surprise that many parents are feeling stressed and uncertain about how to approach the coming school year. Some are feeling pressured to follow one path or another. Some are feeling guilty, as economic and other factors push them toward sending kids back while there are still unanswered questions. 

If you’re confused about the best way to move forward, you’re not alone. Even physicians and other medical experts have differing views about when they’d be comfortable sending their own kids back into the classroom. Most of us have no background or training to prepare us for a situation like this, and new information is emerging day to day. 

Ultimately, only you know what’s best for your family, considering factors such as:

  • Any medical conditions that may make your child vulnerable 
  • Any family members in the home who are elderly, immunocompromised, or have other significant risk factors 
  • How e-learning worked out for your child and your family during the spring
  • Your child’s specific needs that might be served in the classroom
  • The prevalence of the virus in your area
  • The specific plans your school has for keeping kids safe this fall
  • Your ability to work from home or otherwise adapt to having kids attending school online

Whatever you decide, don’t beat yourself up and second-guess yourself. Do the best you can with the information that’s available today and monitor the situation, remaining ready to adapt if necessary.

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