Families Make Different Back-to-School Decisions During COVID-19 Pandemic

Families Make Different Back-to-School Decisions During COVID-19 Pandemic

It’s a new school year amidst a global pandemic. Most of our children haven’t stepped foot inside a classroom since March, and if they’re lucky, maybe they’ve seen a friend or two over the long summer months and stay-at-home order that clouded our springtime.

For many Northeast Ohio families, the school year has kicked off remotely. Some districts gave their parents a choice in schooling, providing options like “traditional” in-person instruction or “hybrid” blends that welcome students back into school buildings for just a few days a week. The start of a new school year is typically a time of great excitement and anticipation, but sadly, the back-to-school vibe fizzled out for many households and has been replaced with anxiety and questions over how the daily juggling act is going to work for parents balancing full-time careers and virtual learning.

In this special three-part series, Northeast Ohio Parent has teamed up with four Ohio families to report on their back-to-school experiences and track their progress. Each family is unique, but they all have one thing in common: a different school year than they’ve experienced before.

Read on for an introductory Q&A with four families and learn how they plan to tackle the new school year with their children.

The Hopkins Family, Willowick
Pursuing virtual schooling

Family Snapshot
Parents: Sally Hopkins, an artist and longtime art teacher for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and Howard, a sales associate at Joseph A. Bank in Legacy Village and the owner of Hopkins Window Cleaning
Kids: Gabrielle Iacona, 24, Joseph Iacona, 22, Juliana Hopkins, 15, a sophomore at Eastlake North High School; and John-Michael Hopkins, 13, an eighth grader at Willowick Middle School
School District: Willoughby-Eastlake Schools

Let’s go back to March with school suddenly going virtual and everyone’s life turned upside down. Can you reflect on that time and talk about some of the emotions that played out in your household? What was that time like for your family? How are you doing now?

Sally Hopkins: “March brought a lot of feelings of uncertainty. Initially, we really didn’t know how to feel or respond because it seemed so surreal. As a teacher, I spent a lot of time trying to find ways to communicate with my students and families through our school’s education website and Facebook page, but with the majority of my students having little or no technology, it was difficult.

“At home, we took many safety precautions: washing hands, sanitizing, spraying things down with Lysol, not having anyone over, not really leaving the house unless it was for groceries, not seeing family or friends, making Zoom calls or FaceTime calls. We were almost afraid to do anything outside of the house. I also knew, for reasons of sanity, that we needed to stick to a structured routine, so I created a daily checklist for the kids, including things like breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, academic time, reading time, free time, lunch, etc. It’s weird because March seems like forever ago. 

“Now, we aren’t as anxious about COVID as we initially were. We wish things would go back to normal, but we know we still need to be responsible. We just aren’t as super heightened as we once were. We find our anxiety is now more about the unknowns of returning to school.”

What options has your school district given you for this school year?

Sally Hopkins: “My kids are in the Willoughby-Eastlake School District, which gave families the option of going back to school in person or virtually. Once the first semester is done, they will decide if they want to return to in-person education. Initially, Juliana wanted to go in person just to experience what it would be like. John-Michael wanted to stay online. We ended up choosing online for the first semester because we honestly feel that it is a matter of time before schools end up closing. I am not 100 percent convinced that it’s the right decision, because I know how badly my kids want to interact with their peers, but it’s the decision that we made and have to accept for the time being. Another deciding factor is the ever-changing information we hear about COVID.

“There are so many unanswered questions. I also know that kids will be kids. They will not keep space between themselves. They will not wear their masks all day. They will want to hang out and be close to each other. Which is what we all want, but I just don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. I also know that John-Michael does not like wearing face masks and it would frustrate him to have to wear one all day.

“Since I will be home for the first nine weeks of my school year, we didn’t really have to make any special accommodations for the kids. It also helps that they are older and more self-sufficient. I empathize with working parents of younger children. Our kids will have designated work spaces for school (not on their beds or laying on the couch in front of the TV).We are going to have them get up, eat breakfast, brush their teeth and get dressed, as they would a normal school day. My concern is that if and when I return to work and my kids are still at home, will they stay on task and get their work done timely and efficiently? My other concern is that I have to figure out what the heck we’re going to have for lunch every day.”

In all of this, what gives you the most anxiety? What gives your kids the most anxiety? 

Sally Hopkins: My school district (Cleveland) is going online for the first nine weeks. Teachers are learning how to navigate new virtual learning platforms and different ways of providing quality education to our students. Not only do we have to learn and familiarize ourselves with virtual learning programs, but we also need to make sure that our parents are trained on these programs. We have several families with two or more children per household. How will that work if they only have one working computer in the house? Many of our students come from low income households. Will they all have access to internet service? How will they be able to properly feed and care for their children? We have to find ways of meeting the needs of students with education and behavioral plans, physical and emotional needs, etc. My hope is for everyone to understand that this will be a year of trial and error. 

“I think it is important that we simply breathe, stay calm and find comfort in knowing that we are all in this together. For my own kids, I think their anxiety lies in not being able to see and interact with their friends. For me, it’s that my daughter has to spend a semester of her sophomore year of high school at home instead of giggling in the hallways or laughing at lunch. It’s that my son won’t get to experience being the “big man on campus,” as this is his last year in middle school as an eighth grader. It’s that they won’t be able to participate in drama and perform on the brand new stage of the high school. 

“We’ve all experienced life before COVID, so we all know what we’re missing. For me, it’s also the fear of this being our new norm. I want to end on a positive note, so with all of this said, I know that people get anxious and because they just want what’s best. If we can all agree on that commonality, that we just want what’s best, then I think we can keep moving forward.”

The Mion Family, Medina
Pursuing a traditional homeschooling curriculum and in-person preschool

Family Snapshot
Parents: Anthony, an engineer, and Sara, beginning her first year teaching preschool at Medina Weekday Preschool after a 10-year hiatus from the classroom 
Children: Nathan, 13, seventh grade; Noah, 11, sixth grade; Elise, 9, fourth grade; Madeline, 6, first grade; Max, 5, preschool; Pippin, 2 ½
School District: Cloverleaf Local Schools

What will the start of the new school year look like for your family? 

Sara Mion: “Our school district is offering full-time, in-person classes with social distancing and masks in areas where that is not possible or full-time, distance learning through a vendor. Our kids really love school and thrive there, but when we started to think about having five kids in three different schools plus me teaching, it just felt like too much of an exposure risk and a chance for us to accidentally spread it before we even knew we had it. It just felt like the one thing we could really promise to give our kids this year in a world filled with unknowns was the consistency of school at home. 

“Distance learning on the computer was a little challenging last year for a kindergartner since kids at that age learn primarily through hands-on experience. I was homeschooled myself for nine years and loved the educational opportunities that it afforded me, so it felt like a perfect fit for our elementary students. My boys in middle school will be working through the distance learning program provided by our school. They really desire a connection to that community they have built, and we are hoping we will be able to keep it up while at home. Our current plan is for our preschooler to attend preschool in person as I will be there right across the hall teaching in another classroom. Of course all of that is dependent on what numbers and risks and recommendations look like as we progress through the fall.

“My husband and I talked about each child and each option first, knowing we would not be able to give them full control over the choice based on the safety concerns that we had. But when it was time to make final decisions, we did give each of the kids the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions about how they felt they would best be able to succeed in school this year. In the end, we were all in agreement with what our best choices for each child would be, and we’re all cautiously excited for the adventure of this school year.”

With the options you chose, what sorts of changes are going to have to take place in your household? 

Sara Mion: “We’re really blessed that my husband is able to work from home indefinitely. That definitely has played a big part in our decisions, knowing that there will always be an adult in the home. He’s been working in our bedroom, which has worked out fine for the last few months, but we’re in the process now of creating a more permanent in-home office that will be able to be used by him and also our two oldest boys as a quiet workspace to be able to do school. We’re setting up shelves and a walk-in closet for all of our school supplies and trying to make this feel less like crisis schooling and more planned and an intentional part of our lives. We’re lucky that my work schedule only takes me away from the home in the mornings a few days a week, so we will have plenty of time to dive into school in the afternoons, evenings and weekends.

“Since I will only be working half days four days a week, the mornings will be used for independent work I will assign the previous afternoon. Things like reading assignments or the homework portion of math assignments. My husband won’t be doing direct instruction during that time but will be available for supervision and answering questions as needed. He thankfully has the ability to work from home, and we have gotten into a nice routine over the last few months having him around all of the time. 

“He does plan on doing some more in-depth math and other STEM projects with our older sons in the afternoons and evenings to supplement their distance learning curriculum, since that is more his specialty as an engineer. 

“The bulk of direct instruction for our homeschooled students will be happening in the afternoons when I am home from work. 

“My mom (a former teacher) has also volunteered to step in and work with kids as needed. It’s definitely going to be a collaborative effort.”

How are you feeling about returning to the classroom amidst a pandemic?

 Sara Mion: “I have a lot of mixed feelings about going back into the classroom right now. I feel confident that my school is doing the best they can to keep staff and students safe and am happy with their current protocols and very small class sizes. But as with everything right now, there are just so many unknowns. We know nothing is foolproof. I think a lot of that anxiety will fade as we get into a routine and see how this is going to work.”

How are your kids feeling about their new, upcoming school year? Specifically, the fact that everyone has a different schooling scenario?

Sara Mion: “We haven’t had much of a discussion about why some kids are doing distance learning, some are being homeschooled and one will be going to school. It’s less about comparing different school choices between kids and more about looking at each of them, their needs and our current circumstances, and figuring out what is going to be the best for them this school year. They were all involved in the decision-making process, even if they did not get the final call. And each was in agreement with us when it came to what would be the best education for them this year.” 

The Hawk Family, Chagrin Falls
Pursuing a hybrid option

Family Snapshot
Parents: Morris, an attorney, and Carrie, community engagement specialist
Children: Celia, 16, and Theo, 14
School District: Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools

In July, your district superintendent chose to open school with two learning options for students, a hybrid half-day model based on your county of residence or an all-virtual academy option. You chose the hybrid option. Why?

Carrie Hawk: “My husband and I can work from home. My kids are older and I am so grateful that they are older. They can read, write, feed themselves… If I had to stay home and help little kids on Zoom, I could never do it. With older kids, it’s manageable. It’s important to me for the kids to see their teachers and get that buy-in. I feel like you have to meet your teachers in order to do the work. It’s that one-on-one with the teachers, seeing other kids, and that social aspect. I want my kids to have that social aspect. My son does band and I just wish it was a year ago and we could all go back to what it was. It’s a new reality.”

What gives you the most anxiety?

Carrie Hawk: “I’m hoping for more organization this year. My kids handled it in March as well as a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old could handle it. I’m worried about the emotional part of sending them off to school and all the new protocols and how the teachers will be handling it. Will they be like, ‘Get your masks on! Get in straight lines!’ I also feel that we kind of just have to get through it, bite the bullet and think of other people who have it tougher, but it’s hard. I think the emotional part will be the hardest — that it’s not back to normal for the kids. I think logistically we can handle it. The kids will still learn. I’m not worried about a slide because everybody will be in the same circumstance.”

How are your kids handling everything? How are they doing?

Carrie Hawk: “The kids are doing good. They have their things they do. My son does his music lessons and plays his video games. When asked, my son would prefer to do online schooling all the time and my daughter would prefer to be at school, but as the parents, we get the final say. They’re old enough that they get what’s going on and that we’re staying home for the greater good and we’re taking precautions. They might actually be more adaptable than the adults. We’ve been very positive. We just ordered some masks, like OK, this is bizarre, so let’s buy funny masks.”

The Rawson Family, Cuyahoga Falls
Pursuing virtual schooling

Family Snapshot
Parents: Patrick, a restaurant manager, and Stephanie, who works as an artist and a cafeteria cashier at an elementary school in their district
Children: Mayla, 13, eighth grade, and Lilah, 11, sixth grade
School District: Cuyahoga Falls City School District

Let’s go back to March with school suddenly going virtual and everyone’s life turned upside down. What was that time like for your family? 

Stephanie Rawson: “I was honestly pretty terrified when everything happened in March. Lilah, my youngest, has asthma. A normal cold can put her in bed for 10 days with multiple trips to the hospital for breathing treatments. I was actually relieved when the decision to close schools was made. During my workday, I am in contact with between 350 and 400 kids daily. That was a lot more contact than I was comfortable with considering I was trying to keep my kiddos healthy. 

“The kids felt safe at home and did well online. I am lucky. They are both good students and all around pretty fantastic little people. They struggled with not being able to see friends, but social distancing at softball has helped that.”

What will the start of the new school year look like for your family? 

Stephanie Rawson: “Our district is giving a hybrid option or a virtual option. We chose virtual. I feel like it isn’t worth the risk sending them right now. Information seems to be changing daily and my head is spinning.”

With the options you chose, what sorts of changes are going to have to take place in your household? 

Stephanie Rawson: “We are turning a spare room in our home into a school room. We have emptied it and are setting up two desks, shelves and a small couch. I feel like it is important for them to have a quiet space where they can sit and concentrate. Maybe this will make the transition easier? Who knows?”

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