by Melissa Henriquez
If you’re a parent of school-aged children and you’ve been on social media even once in the past few weeks, you know all about the heated and contentious back-to-school debate that is raging fiercely. It’s one of the many truisms of the internet: No matter what parents do, it will never be good enough for some people.
As coronavirus cases continue to rise across the country, school districts are offering varying plans for the fall. Some are planning for in-person instruction; some, like Los Angeles, will be online-only; others, like New York City, are for now aiming for a hybrid of both.
At this point, parents have a gazillion questions and precious few answers. Our lack of understanding of the novel coronavirus — combined with heightened emotions and a notable absence of leadership at every level — has seeded an all-out hate-fest among parents. That’s particularly true among moms, who are, more often than not, tasked with overseeing their children’s education (among many, many other things!).
But we’re making it even worse by shaming one another, online and offline, for whichever decision they make. Some examples I’ve seen floating about in the comments sections of social media: If you plan to send your kids to school, you must “hate teachers” and “not care about their/your children’s safety/health/well-being.” But if you plan to keep your kids at home, you’re a “sheep” and “living in fear” or “you must have the luxury of not needing to work.”
Of course, none of these things are true — parents are all just trying to get through this crazy time and are doing what we need to do in order to survive.
There are countless articles and no clear answers. There are logical and rational and science-based articles saying it’s better to send kids back than not because the benefits outweigh the risks, and logical and rational and science-based articles saying it would be a catastrophe to send kids back and that the risks outweigh the benefits. “It’s a no-win scenario,” as my dad likes to say.
Every parent is struggling to do what’s right for his or her family. But now that COVID-19 has become so politicized, in the absence of accountable leadership, especially at the top, American parents of all political stripes are simply throwing barbs at one another instead of supporting those who may not be able to make the same decisions.
As with so many other arenas, those with money to spare have additional options in this difficult scenario, including hiring private teachers or forming exclusive “pandemic pods.” Some are looking at Jewish day schools or secular private schools as alternatives. Some are choosing to homeschool.
But for those kids planning to stay within the public school system, like mine, there really are no good options.
Here in Texas, our school year is slated to start Aug. 19. After a summer of worrying and wondering, we got word that our district is offering two options for elementary-aged kids: in-person or virtual learning. Parents have to submit their decision this week — and if our local mom groups on Facebook are any indication, any decision is going to be the “wrong” one. Talk about Jewish guilt!
My husband and I both work full-time, and our kids are going into fourth and first grade. Juggling work and remote learning was a real challenge for us. The arrangement was semi-functional but not sustainable, and not something either of us would prefer to repeat for another school year.
I’m anxious when I think about how the choice to send our kids back to school as “guinea pigs” or “part of some social experiment” will be judged. As sick as it made me to read these phrases online, I know they aren’t necessarily untrue — so much is unknown about this virus. But also, I feel helpless, because I see no other option. I love my job and I am an equal contributor to our family income.
Adding insult to injury, I’ve seen posts and articles galore about how parents like me who are “choosing” to send their kids back are “killing teachers.” I’ve read about teachers fearfully drafting wills, or considering retiring early, or leaving the field because they’re being asked to sacrifice themselves in ways they never dreamed of. It’s all devastating.
In our community, we are fortunate that teachers have the choice to apply for a virtual position or remain in the classroom; no one is being “forced” to go back. From what I am hearing, the overwhelming majority of the teachers and staff are eager and ready to go back to school with all the new precautions in place — which gives me some comfort. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about the inherent risks they face teaching in the age of coronavirus, whether they choose to be there or not.
The shaming comments break my heart. I hate to think that parents who work and need our kids to learn from actual educators are at the root of their collective anxiety … but that very well may be the case, and that’s an enormous burden to bear.
Schools cannot promise us they are safe, no matter how many precautions they take. In many states, including my own, the number of cases is rising. Will the safety precautions be enough for teachers and students? Will my first-grader realistically be able to keep a mask on his face? (He better!) What if school has to shut because someone contracts the virus?
While distance learning may be what a family needs to do for a variety of reasons, it simply did not work for many families, including ours — not to mention that it’s a mixed bag in terms of results. Many students across the country simply don’t have access to the internet. If we have to continue on this path, I worry: Will my kids and others fall behind? Will I have to quit my job in order to help teach them? How will our kids socialize? What if what if what if?
In the end, after considering the new safety protocols and changes that would be in place at our kids’ school, we decided that we’ll be sending our kids back to school.
Sadly, instead of seeing parents support each other, the hate being lobbed back and forth among parents seems to be so much harsher than the mommy wars of the past. So what is a concerned parent to do besides throw their hands up and cry?
Don’t read any comments section if you don’t want your blood to boil, for one. They are a minefield of anger and frustration — all of which is understandable but can be hard to handle.
Be patient with yourself and the rollercoaster of emotions you may be feeling from one day to the next. None of us have lived during a pandemic before. Be kind to others, and ask questions with empathy. You don’t know what internal battle they’re facing; don’t shame other parents or go all passive-aggressive on them. Avoid judging others — just because you wouldn’t make the same decision doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Everyone has different circumstances and different reasons for the choices they make.
We are desperate for answers, desperate for a “right decision” — but honestly, there isn’t one. There’s only what works for your family right now. That might change in the weeks and months ahead. But until we have a vaccine, this is our new normal, and may be for years to come.
School will look different for everyone this fall. But what we need right now, more than ever, is empathy. My wish is for parents to put down the boxing gloves and agree to be a part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem. It’s going to take a village.