School choice during COVID: US edition
July 31, 2020 8:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to decide whether to put my third-grader in in-person school this fall part-time, or keep her at home for the school's fully-virtual option. Both are feasible for us logistically. How are MeFites thinking through this decision for their own families? What features should "safer school"* have? What epidemiological guideposts are you using to decide how much community spread is too much -- and at what level (county or state)?

Our specific situation: we live in Dane County, Wisconsin, where the rolling average of percent positive is staying under 5% and the healthcare system isn't swamped, but the absolute count of cases per day is high, contact tracing is failing, and there's considerable uncertainty in posted test data more recent than ~2 weeks. Most public schools have chosen to start at a distance (our school is an outlier locally). The broad strokes of our school's plan seem reasonable -- e.g. reducing mixing and density of students to some extent, mandating masks -- but there's an enormous "first contact with the enemy" factor here. Our daughter will do fine academically either way, but we're a little worried about SEL loss if we keep her home when her peers aren't (and this is more significant for her than it would be for most). In theory we can reverse our decision, but I know it'll be a PITA for the school if too many families do that.

But I want to hear about what you're balancing in your choice and how you're deciding. Sometimes that's more helpful than advice specific to my own situation.

*yes, this also fills me with yikes
posted by eirias to Education (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
We are sending our kids back to in person school in whatever form that ends up taking. (they keep changing the plan here which is both frustrating and reassuring—! Hard to schedule around but at least they are responding to the situation as it evolves!)

My 2 older kids are going into first grade and pre-k. They both desperately need structure and social engagement— my spouse and I are both full time hospital-based physicians and while we can arrange our schedules to some extent it’s not practical to supervise 3 small kids at home if there is an alternative.

But more to the point I think the evidence (limited though it is) supports a) we can decrease spread through de-densifying kids in classrooms, wearing masks and thoughtful use of shared materials and surfaces. b) kids overall are far less likely to develop serious or dangerous health problems of they were to become ill c) we have access to adequate testing with quick enough turn around to be meaningful in quarantine process and d) I trust my community to be rigorous about masks and distancing, and to be fairly honest about exposure. To some extent this is based on our experience putting 2 bigger kids in part time small cohort/no mixing summer camp over the last month. When possible exposures arose everyone was very honest and appropriately quarantined).

Frankly I believe this is going to be around for a while, and for us the risk / benefit calculation supported letting our (healthy, young) kids back. That said, we are making an educated guess like everyone!
posted by BundleOfHers at 8:27 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]

I'm in upstate NY, where we're at around a 1% positive rate (rolling average), and we're planning to keep our second- and third-graders at home at least for the first semester. Most districts that have announced their plans already don't give much information about what the distance learning plan will look like so we're waiting for more information on that to see if that will work for our kids, and if it sucks - one district has apparently said "our distance plan will be to put a laptop running Zoom in the corner and your kid can watch the classroom from home" - we'll pick a homeschool plan and do that instead. I'm working from home for the foreseeable future. My kids can be here with me so there's fewer kids in the classroom for the families who don't have that choice. We're hoping to find a few other families with similar levels of risk aversion to group up with for social/emotional stuff, but haven't actually done that yet. I'm also considering hiring an education student from the college nearby to do some of the education stuff with my kids, both to get us all a break from each other and to have someone with a pedagogical background geared at their ages do some of the work with them.

I am so, so tired all the time and making this decision has been really hard. I sort of feel like I'm overreacting all the time because the majority of parents in my district responded on a survey that they favor in-person instruction all or part time. But we know so little about the long-term effects of COVID-19, and we know that one asymptomatic carrier can spread it so easily, and we know how kids operate. From casual observation, it seems like most of the parents I know would be comfortable sending their kids two days a week, but I also think a lot of those parents are banking on people like me keeping their kids home so the class sizes are smaller.

My kids really want to go back, and it will suck for them to not be there with most of their friends, but we've talked a lot about limiting exposure and how we'll handle the year. My kids have done way better stuck at home with just each other than we expected so that was definitely a factor - they entertain each other and neither seems to have suffered much of a mental health setback from all of this. If they were miserable at home, that would definitely be a consideration.

I've heard, anecdotally, that a lot of districts are saying families need to commit to distance learning just through the winter holidays. That's my hope for us - we can reevaluate if things look better by then.
posted by SeedStitch at 8:31 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]

Please drill into the details of your district’s plans, as I think that will give you a more accurate assessment of risk. I’d ask specifically about:

~what sorts of air filtration and purification have they installed over the summer? Will your kid’s classrooms have windows? Can those windows open? Can there be fans in the classroom? (There should not be.)
~what size of cohort are they planning for in this grade? Is it just your child’s class, the entire third grade, or half the school?
~how will specials work? Will your child get 6 weeks of all-art and then 6 weeks of computers, and so on? (This is almost certainly the safer choice.)
~how will recess work? Who monitors recess — is it the free-for-all play or are they talking about structured PE classes that will maintain a reliable distance between students?
~what will the classroom look like? Desks facing all the same direction? Will they get to move around to stations or be in their seat all day?
~is group work allowed? Will students ever be allowed to face each other, or will they all have to face the same direction?
~how detailed is the contact tracing? The more thorough it is, the more structured your child’s day will be.
~what’s the plan for sharing supplies? Does it mean no science experiments this year?
~who supervises the children at lunch? There are probably no classroom volunteers allowed this year, which likely means the teacher is alone in the room (maybe an aide). When will the teacher eat lunch? If they don’t have an answer to this question, they haven’t thought about it yet — which means a more cobbled-together solution than the big plan implies.
~how much extra prep time will your child’s teacher receive this year? They almost certainly need it, but cohorting probably means they’ll get less because they can’t have one staff member supervise 100 kids while the others get recess. A more stressed teacher means a less joyful experience for your child.
~how much training did teachers receive over the summer for another possible distance learning experience? What supports will they continue to receive during the year? Even if in-person, your child’s class will almost certainly have periods of distance learning anyway. If they haven’t prepared for that, it will be a chaotic transition again.
~what parts of the curriculum are getting dropped to account for all the extra time for cleaning, sanitizing, and extra SEL work that need to occur? Are you ok with what will get de-emphasized?

Many of their answers will be “we don’t know yet, we’re still working” which is fine. Ask them for when their deadline is to have all these questions answered. If they can’t give you a deadline that is at least a week away from the beginning of school, they’re not seriously putting a plan together.

Disclosure: I believe families who are able should keep their children at home this year to free up resources for students who absolutely HAVE to be in the classroom. YMMV and I don’t judge people who make an informed choice for their family, even if it’s a different choice than I would make.
posted by lilac girl at 8:41 AM on July 31 [12 favorites]

We are currently struggling with this here in NW PA where case counts are still low but trending ominously upwards. It's especially odd because the shutdowns of spring happened when we basically had no community spread here, and now we do have new cases every day and yet we're all at work and sending our kids to school. I don't know.

We have chosen to not send our kids in person and are trying to decide if the remote learning plan our school is putting into place will work or if we need to put them in a cyber charter school. Neither is ideal but we have our kids in a small private school that does fantastic stuff and we'd like to keep them there with their friends (even remote) and the teachers they know and trust. That depends, however, on if the distance learning is really going to work.

If it was just our immediate family, we might attempt in-person, but we have my mother in our family grouping, and she is 77; also my wife is somewhat immuno-compromised, and I am still working in an office with other people, so we made our decision based on reducing additional exposures.

Our biggest concern right now is that it looks like most of the other families in the school are intending to at least start in person, and we don't want our kids to be the only ones remote and have the teachers forget that they are around because all their attention is on the kids actually physically in front of them. Our expectation is that we will have to go remote sometime in the fall anyway, so starting that way makes the most sense, but we just don't know which school choice is the best.

Like SeedStitch, we are going to see if we can get some additional tutoring help from local college education students, which I think could really make a difference but is obviously not a choice that everyone has open to them. Overall, everything we do or decide seems wrong and we are likely all fucked, but at least we know that everyone is in the same boat!
posted by dellsolace at 8:42 AM on July 31 [2 favorites]

I too am tired. If you have the option of keeping your kids home I would keep them home for three reasons:
  • lower risk
  • provides space to those that need it
  • less disruption when your school inevitably closes (just look at that chart you linked!)
This was the decision we made, and then the school district changed their plans to 100% remote.

I remind myself to to be kind to others facing this decision about sending kids to school- I don't know what burdens they carry or the trade offs between risk and finances. Its hard problem and all solutions are imperfect for families, for working moms, for the disadvantaged, it's very bad. I very much feel like this is social collapse. Not being able to take care of kids and letting old folks just die is social collapse.

A big part of my parenting has always been that things will be different for my kids, their childhood can't be like mine, could never be like mine*. I know that extended remote learning will have some negative impacts on my kids for the rest of their life. I know that the ongoing economic collapse and environmental collapse will cause my children to suffer. That, fundamentally, is the burden of being a parent, and I just try to face it with honesty that I am trying my best but soooo imperfect.

*For those folks who look at these posts in the light of choosing to have kids (a thing I very much did right here on metafilter) - my kids are thriving. Right now they are overjoyed to be playing Yoshi's world on their nintendo.
posted by zenon at 9:34 AM on July 31 [4 favorites]

We are in Northern CA; all school districts are basically opting to start out the school year with distance learning. In our particular school district, we were offered 3 options: full-time independent study (same as homeschooling but with some district support and provision of materials), hybrid option - starting out remote, and then bringing students back as the numbers allow, and then on a half-half schedule with multiple cleanings/disinfection of the properties in-between, and full-time distance learning in which we commit to having our kids at home until the end of the year.

The numbers do not look good in our area, and are rising. We opted to do full-time distance learning for both kids, because we both work from home. We are hiring a tutor for the younger one, to ensure that his learning is reinforced. For the older one she is fairly independent. We have luckily, hired a tutor, who takes covid-19 as seriously as we do, and we can operate as a bubble of sorts. We are choosing the full-time distance learning because 1. we don't want to stress out every week about whether we should send the kids to school or not; 2. we all have health issues that make us susceptible to covid-19's worse aspects, 3. we do not trust the other kids/parents to maintain social distancing requirements, and 4. we are in one of the best school districts in CA, and the teachers here still have to ask parents for donations every year for supplies; I'm not sure how they're going to maintain basic cleaning supplies when soap was frequently out last year.

The district has offered a detailed plan where they split the kids into "cohorts" when they come back, so that one group of kids is not interacting with the other kids. This is for elementary - I have no idea how this will work for the middle and high school kids. Basically cohort A would come in on Mon/Tues, and cohort B would come in on Thurs/Fri, with both cohorts at home on Wed. In between the cohorts, the school would disinfect classrooms, and the district would also change the ventilation. Lunch would be distributed in paper bags (I think) and they would all have a designated area where they would eat their lunch.
posted by toastyk at 10:13 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for your thoughts so far. For those of you who say the numbers are bad where you are, could you say a little more about which numbers, and where you’re setting your level of comfort? That’s one thing that’s really quite unclear to me at this point (and it’s not like I’m allergic to numbers; I’m a statistician!).

Re: equity, thanks for noting this. It’s a good point. Because we have our kid at a private school, equity issues do exist but not in the same way that they do at the local public, and our biggest contribution to inequity is being there in the first place. On a personal level, Little e is in one at-risk/structurally-disadvantaged group, schoolwise — for all our privilege otherwise — and it’s that fact above any others that leads me to consider this at all.
posted by eirias at 10:32 AM on July 31

This is not a US answer, but I hope it is still helpful.

I'm a teacher in Hong Kong (here are our numbers; they are, broadly, better than the US but still bad), where kids went back to school after three months off...and then left again a few weeks before the end of the year. I'm not sure when they're going back to in-person lessons, and we're probably looking at at least the first part of the fall semester online. This is obviously annoying and disruptive, but crucially, we have time to plan now.

Interestingly, the new closure of the schools here was not really the fault of the kids or the schools or even local Hong Kongers; instead, it was an X factor: too many folks were exempt from our very strict quarantine/arrivals-testing program (namely flight/ship crew on rest periods or layovers) and entered the city in sufficient numbers to start off a new wave of infections. It became untenable to have kids in school at this point because infections were spreading in local housing estates, and the year was cut short, just as kids were sitting some important exams. We're still, weeks later, just about at capacity in our hospitals and testing system. So it's not as if what happens in school will be the determining factor - it will be some other community member that causes an outbreak and the school will have to close again anyway.

Also, as I mentioned above, it certainly may not have seemed like it from what took place this spring, but good online teaching is absolutely possible and educators are only going to get better at it with experience and time to plan. To fully transition from what happened this spring - improvisational emergency online instruction - to a thought-out, age-appropriate online learning curriculum requires a lot of preparation, just like working from home in any job would. It's also possible to socialise and have fun and just be a kid in an online classroom, though this takes time and practice for both teachers and students.

So I say this: if you have even some confidence that the school system where you are can make online learning workable for at least a few months, keep your child at home. You mention in your update that Little e has some additional factors that complicate the situation; I would work with the school to see that some of the support Little e receives to mitigate the negative effects of those factors be translated to the online space or your home. If Little e uses a learning aid or has a buddy or partner for some parts of their school day, that may be able to happen in some modified way online. If they benefit from a well-considered IEP, perhaps there is a way to make the adjustments and practices within something that can work at home.

Good luck! I don't envy your decision at all. Teachers like me miss our students immensely, but we also desperately need to stay safe for our families' benefit and yours.
posted by mdonley at 10:53 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]

My town, in Connecticut, had one of the first outbreaks in the country. There was a going-away party and close to 50 people in attendance contracted the virus and it began to spread from there -- I've always assumed through the schools.

More than four months later, the number of cumulative cases in town is 331.

This is one of a few factors that has me -- despite wishing like hell that our town goes full-remote when schools start back up -- willing to let my kid (age 15) make his own decision if his school has a full-day in-person option. (Our schools will allow any kids to go remote in that scenario.) And I've been deep in the bunker from the start; my firm closed the office a day before I heard of anyone else doing so, and I'd wanted them to close three weeks before that. I just picked up like my eighth takeout meal since mid-March, and the sight of diners inside (and the guy behind the counter at this pizza place) wearing masks improperly or not at all still terrifies me, just so you know where I come from.

Anyway, the factors:

-- I've tracked the number of cases in town daily (literally, like in a spreadsheet). Seeing an average of one new case a day for weeks now has helped me calm down some, even as it seems obvious the closure of the schools has helped keep that number so low.
-- You ask about numbers. I'd recommend this site, among others. The site does a good job explaining it, in case you're not familiar with this measure. My state was like second-best in the country a few weeks ago; not so much now. This will definitely be a factor in our decision.
-- I've read through our district's reopening plan. There's nothing I could add on the subject that lilac girl didn't already say far better, except that we'll plan to drive Junior to and from school each day; we're lucky in so many ways, including that we won't need to put him on a bus.
-- I (again, very militant on erring on the side of caution) think our town did a pretty good job of handling everything post-outbreak. If I lived in a warmer state, I'd likely take about as many cues from local government as I do currently from the federal government. I wish so badly that the schools' plan was to go full-remote anytime a single case was suspected in the building, but as it is, I trust them about as much as I trust anyone who isn't me to modify the plan as current conditions warrant.
-- Somehow both the most and least important factor, I do want my kid to have a social life, to see other people besides his parents. He's gone along with my extreme caution, and seen all of two relatives and maybe 10 friends since mid-March -- and hasn't seen those friends all that often. If returning to school appeared a lot riskier than it appears to me, I'd make the tough decision and pull him out, but here in the nebulous present, it's hard to ignore what keeping him out would do to him emotionally, especially when it might be reasonably safe.

Wishing you luck, and wishing I felt confident about making our own choice.
posted by troywestfield at 11:44 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]

I am just outside Toronto in an area that basically doesn’t have Covid (I think the GTA - a population of over 6 million people, has a decreasing daily new caseload of 40 people). The Hospital for Sick Kids came out with a recent report on recommendations for safe school re-opening. My main dispute with the report is that school workers’ safety has been pretty much ignored. In addition, a local teacher and biostatistician has been crunching numbers daily. Our provincial school reopening plan for September was announced yesterday. As well, in September there will be a large number of American and International teenagers arriving as students at our colleges and universities. They will be under a quarrentine order I believe will be ineffective (or, sadly, deliberately ignored as scores of Americans have since crossing the border this summer).

Balancing all that information has led me to decide that my children will most likely not be returning to school. I am fortunate they are old enough that I do not require childcare while working and I have previous experience homeschooling/ unschooling. I feel the risk to school staff’s health is too great, the smaller risk to my children’s long term health is too unknown, and that the disruption of the schools most likely shutting down again in October does not balance against the anxiety my children feel when they leave our property. I realize some parents have no choice, or their child requires supports only available at the school, so I am doing my parent in reducing classroom numbers when the government won’t. I believe between 40-50% of parents are currently making plans to keep their children home in my area (a relatively privileged area).
posted by saucysault at 11:45 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]

We live in central NJ, and have one 13 year old boy who will be attending school in person. For our school district that means 2 consecutive half days in school, the rest remote. Our township was split right down the middle in terms of whether or not to keep your kid at home.

Here’s what was foremost in my mind when making this decision:

1) Would I be taking a spot from someone who really needed to send their kids to school? After the parent survey I didn’t think so.
2) My boy barely leaves the house. Being an inside-kid only child isn’t always great. He needs to go out.

The number I pay attention to is the Rt number which here has just crept above one, which is...not great. Schools here plan to shut down for a week after the first confirmed case of COVID for teacher or student. Honestly I don’t believe in my heart of hearts that in-person school will last all that long in the fall.

I have no judgement for any parents, whatever decision they made.
posted by lyssabee at 12:53 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

We just received a query from Chicago Public Schools about whether we were opting in to their proposed hybrid learning plan (half the kids attend in person on Monday/Tuesday, the other half on Thursday/Friday, everyone learns from home on Wednesday) or full-time learning at home, and I somewhat reluctantly chose the stay-at-home option. Cases in Illinois were on a downturn for a bit but are now increasing again, and I'm willing to bet that if we do start hybrid learning (the Teachers Union is against it, and rightly so I believe) it won't last long until everyone has to stay at home again.

Decision points were:
In favor of in-person attendance - socialization, better access to my kid's special ed team, reinforcement of school social structure, spring remote learning was kinda exhausting, honestly.

For staying at home - I'm a stay at home parent and am available (even if I'm tired), both parents are in (different) higher risk categories for COVID, kid is very anxious about COVID in general and is afraid to wear masks and/or leave the house, high chance that kid is not going to be okay with classroom protocol including limiting bathroom breaks, having kids eating the classroom instead of the lunchroom is potentially dangerous for him due to severe food allergies.

I realize that most of these are very specific to our own family situation; no idea if any of this is helpful to you, but here it is just in case. It's a hard decision, for sure.
posted by sencha at 1:13 PM on July 31 [2 favorites]

We also had the choice between hybrid learning (as described by sencha) or full-time at home. We chose the hybrid option.

The factors:
-- Kiddo did very well with isolation until he did not. Being at home, inside full time for several months took a toll on his mental health.
-- Kiddo has been genuinely diligent about taking precautions to protect himself and others.
-- The school district spent a considerable amount of time collecting public comments and community input before releasing the preliminary plan. The superintendent has hosted routine on-line community meetings. From the first day the schools were shut down last February messaging has come directly from the superintendent's office.
-- I've read through the plan and am as comfortable as I am going to get.
-- Frankly, both spouse and I sucked at consistently monitoring kiddo during the initial shut down of the schools and whatever monitoring that took place fell disproportionately on my shoulders. I found myself white knuckling it at the end of the school year on top of working full time.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 2:01 PM on July 31 [2 favorites]

For your consideration... it is possible that your* private school is offering in-person instruction for not purely altruistic reasons.

*I had a recent conversation with a friend who teaches at a private school. Her school is still deciding whether to go in-person / remote in the fall. The school administration is concerned that parents are unwilling to pay private school tuition for remote instruction. Meanwhile the teachers are also in a tough position. They aren’t unionized. Many teachers have safety / logistical concerns about in-person teaching (e.g. caring for elderly relatives or children especially when other schools will be operating remotely).

I went into the conversation with my friend thinking that it is really important to get all kids under 10 years old back in the classroom, because they most likely have the lowest risk from COVID, benefit the least from virtual instruction, and face some risk from staying at home (e.g. going hungry). There is of course some (unknown) risk for teachers, but keeping kids home from school has its dangers as well. However, after the conversation I realized that the risk reward tradeoffs between students and teachers is different when students have the economic privilege to weather virtual instruction for a term or two.
posted by oceano at 3:52 PM on July 31 [3 favorites]

Another resource: This tool provides an estimate (from U. of Texas researchers) of how many people in the average school in a given county would bring an infection to school if school started today. Your county looks like it's in comparatively good shape, for whatever that's worth.
posted by troywestfield at 3:52 PM on July 31 [2 favorites]

I thought Ezekial Emmanuel's recent op-ed Opening Schools Won’t Be Easy, but Here’s How to Do It Safely in the New York Times was the most intelligent thing I'd read about keeping schools safe, so I sent it on to a friend who, in return, sent me Bishop Guertin CORONAVIRUS Information for the Catholic school her kids attend, and I was completely blown away by how thoughtful and well researched it was.

They're both worth reading because there was an article in the New York Times yesterday, saying that Children May Carry Coronavirus at High Levels, Study Finds, and only a few days earlier they published an article saying that Older Children Spread the Coronavirus Just as Much as Adults, Large Study Finds.
posted by Violet Blue at 4:05 PM on July 31 [2 favorites]

I don't have kids, but if I did I would be asking many questions about ventilation and how that will be handled, especially in the coming winter months. This Atlantic article (try reader view if paywalled) about aerosols brings up many questions:

Signatories who study aerosols—the smaller, floating particles—including professor Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech and Jimenez, told me that they don’t disagree with the idea that transmission at close range represents the most risk, as per the WHO and CDC guidelines. But they disagree that the dominance of close-contact transmission implies that ballistic trajectories or larger respiratory droplets are the overwhelming mode of transmission. In their view, even some portion of that close-contact transmission is likely due to aerosols, and many experts told me that they think even particles bigger than the WHO’s definition of respiratory droplets (larger than 5-10 microns in diameter) can float for a bit.

Marr told me that she “sheepishly” switched her elementary- and middle-school-age children to a private school because she was able to make a case with the school to take “good ventilation” seriously, in addition to wearing masks and social distancing. Not every school will have such resources, but maybe providing those resources is exactly what we should aspire to for all schools.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:59 PM on July 31 [2 favorites]

I think it is also fair to ask how the school plans on addressing different possible scenarios. What is the policy for when a student / teacher / staff member has a diagnosed and/or suspected case of the coronavirus? What is the policy for quarantining if been exposed? If a teacher or a student needs to stay home, how will class continue, and will they be “penalized” for doing so? Under what circumstances will the school close again? I’m not sure if there is one right answer to the possible scenarios, but it would be a red flag if the administration is dismissive of your concerns or if it seems like contingency planning is equivalent to “hopes and prayers.”
posted by oceano at 11:27 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

I offer this article I saw in the Washington Post that really brought home to me how it seems that some government officials are determined to open and just hope for the best, and it spells out a number of hurdles that I personally hadn't though of, perhaps it has some points that might help you. "How to Stop Magical Thinking in School reopening Plans"
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 1:07 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]

I'm also a Dane county resident, and I'm keeping my kids home.

I think it's highly likely that Evers' mask mandate will be defeated either by a legislative joint resolution or by the courts. While the mask mandate is in effect, the numbers will go down, but if it doesn't last, be ready for things to tick up again.

If you set some sort of numeric threshold for safety... what happens when that threshold is exceeded a month or two into the school year? Given my pessimism about WI controlling the virus in a sustainable way, I'd rather just get my kids into a consistent groove.
posted by Jpfed at 11:56 PM on August 2 [1 favorite]

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