‘I Hate COVID-19’: Parents Make Adjustments For Beginning Of School Year As Districts Change Plans

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As school districts across Colorado make adjustments to plans for the upcoming academic year, parents face a choice of the right learning environment for their children.

That includes Jamie, a Colorado Springs mother with two young daughters. She's asked that we don't use her last name to protect her privacy.

Near her dining room table, two small desks are arranged with books and pencils. A little girl in a blue dress proudly stands by hers, excited to show it off. She holds up three pencils.

"Two are green and one is...this color," she said as she raised a black pencil to the Zoom screen.

She's a kindergartner, starting at age three because she's considered advanced. Her mom Jamie will be her teacher this year. The family is making different choices for their two kids. Their youngest, the little one with the three pencils, will be home-schooled. An older daughter will attend an online private school. Both girls fall into high-risk medical categories.

"We were in the car just the other day and she just started to tear up and I said, 'What's wrong, honey?' And It was just out of nowhere. And she said 'I really hate COVID-19.'"

Mary Webster-Walsh

"Without coronavirus, we would be sending them to a public Montessori school," Jamie said.

In addition to her two daughters, two middle-school-aged kids who also live with the family are enrolled in Colorado Springs District 11's full-time, online option, Inspire Online. Without the virus, they would be at school as well.

"We've got more workspace for the older kids in the basement because they can be a little bit more independent as far as navigating their own work and stuff and wanting a quiet place to study," she said. "For the little ones, it's better to have them here right in the middle of our open floor plan just so we can keep an eye on them, keep them on track, help them out."

So, there will be a lot going on in a small space. Jamie said she's prepared, especially after having the kids learn from home during the early stages of the pandemic this spring.

"There's been a lot of changes and uncertainty regarding what the public schools are going to do, it's been nice to just know that we have our plan and we don't have to deal with that kind of uncertainty," she said.

Mary Webster-Walsh and her daughter Ada.
Credit Photo Courtesy Mary Webster-Walsh
Mary Webster-Walsh and her daughter Ada.

Another Colorado Springs mom, Mary Webster-Walsh, feels the same way. She said her 7-year-old daughter Ada, a Type 1 diabetic with a penchant for worry, would likely be affected by that uncertainty.

"We were in the car just the other day and she just started to tear up and I said, 'What's wrong?' And It was just out of nowhere. And she said 'I really hate COVID-19.' And I said, 'Why honey?' And she said, 'Because I miss my friends and I don't want to get sick.' And she just expressed a lot of concern about getting ill," Webster-Walsh said.

It's those concerns that made her question if her daughter would thrive at school with the masks, extra hand-washing and social distancing.

"It's counter to their nature to not run and play together in groups and hold hands and hug and skip down the hall together. And that's what they do," she said of her daughter and her friends. "And to put them in an environment where you're constantly having to monitor all of that and separate them. That's got to be just so stressful to the educational environment. I wonder just how much they're actually going to be able to learn this semester."

She said her heart goes out to the teachers. Her daughter absolutely loved her school and at first she resisted the change. That brought up additional fears for Webster-Walsh.

"Another thing I hear from parents is, 'well, I'm not an expert in education.' But you are an expert in your child."

Silvia Nogueron-Liu, assistant professor of education at CU Boulder

"I worry that I won't be able to hold her attention, that she'll come to dread our lessons because I just don't have enough variety for her," she said.

Webster-Walsh recognizes that she's privileged to be able to, somewhat abruptly, switch to homeschooling her daughter as well as handle the learning of her other preschool-aged child. She won't send her kids back to school until there is a proven vaccine for COVID- 19.

Both families are rearranging their lives.

Jamie worked at a childcare center and will be sacrificing that income. Webster-Walsh had planned to begin working part-time this fall, since both her girls were supposed to be in school. They can also afford the supplies and have time to research curriculum options.

Even so, they're left to weave together a successful end product from a lot of, occasionally ill-fitting, pieces. And they're not alone in wondering what the final picture will be while trying to keep their kids safe, socially engaged and unafraid of the virus.

Silvia Nogueron-Liu, an assistant professor of Literacy Studies in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder, studies ways to engage families in supporting literacy at home.

"I think the social, emotional aspects of learning are going to be so important to launch this new year...more than the academics," she said.

Silvia Noguerón-Liu is Assistant Professor of Literacy Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.  Her projects—conducted in traditional and new migration settings—document the affordances of digital resources for Latino families, and the transnational funds of knowledge parents mobilize in literacy practices with young children.
Credit Photo Courtesy CU Boulder
Silvia Noguerón-Liu is an assistant professor of literacy studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Many parents have the same concerns right now, regardless of how their child will be learning this year.

"Another thing I hear from parents is that… 'well, I'm not an expert in education.' But you are an expert in your child," she said.

Measuring benchmarks and levels of proficiency will be difficult as children adapt to their new environments, Nogueron-Liu said. And this will be true whether students are remote learning, homeschooling, in-person classes or a mix of something in between like learning pods — where groups of kids learn together, but not in an actual classroom.

"Sometimes families will engage their children in activities that may or may not match school, but children are still learning valuable lessons to be part of the household and connect those experiences with what they're reading or math projects or social studies," she said. "[Parents need to] have a growth mindset, and not just focus on the things the child can't do or the things that they missed because they will internalize this idea of falling behind."

She also brings up the issue of equity and inclusion as the opportunities and options vary wildly from family to family and district to district.

"What happens when children from certain backgrounds are not included? Or, if they are included, how to make sure that learning continues to be equitable and that every parent is treated with respect and that communication is clear."

Communication will no doubt be key, as school districts continue to make adjustments and change protocols, pulling on threads and stitching together plans to try and make things work. And parents like Webster-Walsh, Jamie and so many others will work alongside them, doing what they can to keep things from unraveling.