The decision on whether or not to send kids back to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't been easy on parents. Four mothers across the country explain how they decided between homeschooling, virtual only, in-person, and hybrid.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
August 27, 2020
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Families across the country skipped the usual decisions on first-day-of-school outfits and whether to get a new backpack this year. Instead, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, back-to-school season required families to decide how their kids would actually learn.

Some are going to school entirely remotely. Others can return to physical classrooms. Some chose a hybrid approach that mixes remote and in-person instruction. And some are homeschooling.

Across the country, parents have fretted over their decision, weighing their options based on what's available, what's best for their family, the COVID-19 rates in their communities, and their children's unique needs. We chatted with four moms across the country to find out what choice they made and why.

Virtual: 'Together, but apart'

Heather Clarke, Woodside, New York

  • Two sons: a 6-year-old first grader and a 3-year-old preschooler
Courtesy of Heather Clarke

My older son has severe asthma. My little one also has asthma. I have an autoimmune disease. My mom, who doesn't live with us, but we are really close with, is very high risk. And our co-op is filled with the elderly. We just did not want to be contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. Then come to find out, there are kids getting sick. And I'm Black, and the effect on my ethnic and racial community has been tremendous.

I also teach at Queens College, City University of New York, (where distance learning is continuing for the Fall 2020 semester) and am an early childhood special educator. The schools that I work in have been highly impacted. At Queens College, I teach mostly students of color. To have 15, 16, 17 students in a graduate class and four of them lose their parents to COVID, that's a high percentage. And Mount Sinai, where they had one of the mobile morgues, is right across the street from where one of my sons goes to school, and we live equal distance between Mount Sinai and Elmhurst Hospital. Every day we're hearing sirens.

For me, there was no way I was going to put either of my sons back in school. I'm not concerned about them falling behind academically. I'm more concerned with them being OK emotionally and, of course, number one is their health.

In terms of the remote learning, I'm going to do just the bare minimum and then focus on enriching activities that really foster a love of learning. My son is really interested in the election. He really wants to learn how to cook. I'll look for ways to teach him math and science with stuff that's right in our kitchen.

I'm trying to be optimistic because I want the kids to have a love of learning, and I don't want it to be a drag. I'm in this online Black Indigenous homeschooling collective, so we generate our own ideas and lesson plans. And I'm starting a Black student union at my kid's school that's virtual. We might do some socially distanced meetups for kids and do things that are culturally specific across the Black diaspora. We're trying to figure out ways to be together even when we're apart.

Homeschool: 'Out of the fray'

Susie Salaz, Indianapolis

  • Four children: a 2-year-old boy, a 4-year-old boy, a 7-year-old second grade girl, and a 9-year-old fourth grade girl
Courtesy of Susie Salaz

When my kids' parochial school closed school down in the spring, e-learning was a big struggle. We didn't have quite enough devices. My husband got sent home to work. I work remotely. The school was willing to work with us, but the big shift of being in school to being at home was hard, especially for my oldest daughter.

Over the summer, I felt like it was kind of a perfect storm of everything happening between the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement. My husband and I were coming to terms with what systemic racism really was. A state voucher program allowed us to afford the parochial school our kids attended, but we started to understand that the money wasn't going back into the public school system where underprivileged groups needed it. We started rethinking the parochial school. We also live in an archdiocese that had fired teachers who were gay. That wasn't something we agreed with. And my oldest daughter was very worried about wearing the mask all day. And we were worried about going to school for a couple of weeks and having to come home and doing e-learning again.

Then I started talking to my cousin and a couple of friends who homeschool, and they gave me resources and books to read. I started reading Free to Learn by Peter Gray, and it's all about the power of play. Even in older kids, they learn so much more through play.

So we decided we were going to skip school. A lot of my friends who are also considering homeschooling, they're asking, "What curriculum are you using?" And I just decided to let my kids pick out a few different math and card games. I feel like my daughter has always struggled in math. But she's liked playing math games and card games these last few weeks. I feel like she's confident in math facts all of a sudden. We put up a poster board in our house that says, "Always Be Curious," and they put sticky notes whenever they have questions. That has shown me what they want to learn and how they each learn.

There are a lot of days where it's just nothing but fights and tears and I think, "Why am I doing this?" This time last year, I felt like I finally had some time to get my own career as a writer off the ground. This was not in my future. But I feel like we have to be adaptable and our family has the resources to stay home and stay out of the fray and do it in a fun way.

Hybrid: 'Not an easy decision to make'

Tina Donvito, Rockaway, New Jersey

  • One son: a 7-year-old first grader
Courtesy of Tina Donvito

My son gets bussed out of district to a program for the deaf and hard of hearing. He has hearing loss that's mild in one ear and moderate to severe in another. He wears hearing aides and has some sensory processing issues. His special services include a teacher of the deaf, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. All of those services go through the school district, which is partly why it was so important for me to keep him in school.

Remote school in the spring started out OK. He was responsive to me giving him direction and completing all the stuff he was supposed to do. As we settled into it, he started getting very frustrated. He didn't really seem to like Mom as teacher. It was really hard to get him to focus and do the work. There was a lot of tension. It just wasn't really working for him.

All of his teachers were great and everybody really tried, but I felt like it was really turning him off to learning. I knew he would catch up, but I was worried about him just not liking school and that was not something I wanted to continue in the fall. I didn't want him to have this attitude that school is boring and not interesting and that he doesn't like learning because I know that he does. Plus, it was very hard for him as a hard of hearing person to communicate virtually over the computer. Unless it was perfect conditions, there's always those glitches where words cut out a little bit. Looking at continuing that in the fall and having that be one more challenge for him to overcome, I didn't really want to put that on him.

I had a feeling that schools were going to open in some capacity. Here in New Jersey, our cases are down, and so it did seem like a safer place. If I was in another part of the country, I would have made a different decision. He'll be going to school five days a week. It's four hours in the morning, and then he'll come home and have specials in the afternoon. Ever since making the decision, I've really been struggling with it. My instinct is to have him go in-person. But it keeps me up at night. I know it should be safe, but you never know. I don't want him to be that rare, unusual case. I worry about his teacher and his grandparents and everyone else around him, but my main concern is him. It was definitely not an easy decision to make.

In-Person Instruction: 'Can't hide from the virus'

Julie Collier, Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas

  • Two sons: a 20-year-old college junior and a 16-year-old tenth grader
Courtesy of Julie Collier

In the last few weeks, parents were allowed to decide whether they wanted to attend in-person or virtually. I am a former public school teacher myself. I'm also a former homeschool teacher. We homeschooled our younger son during junior high. And I feel like I know what's best for him and how he learns the best. And, for him, that's having an in-person, face-to-face teacher with a group of kids. He's very social. He plays football. I think that was the best choice for him.

We had a family discussion about it, knowing our older son was also going to go back to college, though a lot of his classes are online. My younger son has had in-person football, practicing since mid-summer, and the coaches have done an amazing job following all the protocols and making sure the kids are safe and healthy. It's just been a great experience. Knowing what we already experienced over the summer, I knew that his public school would have a similar approach to it. I feel pretty confident they are going to do all they can to ensure the kids' health and safety.

My tenth grader's school has smaller class sizes because about 40 percent of the kids chose online schooling. Parents have to fill out a weekly health screening check to find out if they have any symptoms or if they have been exposed to anybody with COVID in the past week. Parents also must do a daily screening prior to taking them to school. If students have a temperature or if they have any symptoms, they are required to stay home. When they enter classrooms, they're supposed to use hand sanitizer at the door and maintain distancing and wear their masks all day.

On the first day, my tenth grader came home happy, saying he had a great day and has great teachers. His only complaint was that there could only be four students per table during lunch and flights of stairs only go one way now. As a mom, that's a great complaint knowing the school and district are following through on health and safety protocols during this unprecedented time in our kids' lives.

You always worry about their health and safety, and COVID is no different. But you can't exactly hide from this virus. So you just have to do what you can to continue moving forward and being safe.

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