Why We Enrolled Our 5-Year-Old In Gymnastics, But Kept Her In Virtual School

by Kristen Thiele
Scary Mommy and Robert Decelis Ltd/Getty

March 12, 2020 changed life as we knew it. I locked my classroom door for what I thought was a long weekend. I picked up my children from preschool and after-school programs, came home, and made dinner as usual. My husband returned home from work shortly after and within a week of that night, he was given the directive to work from home indefinitely. My daughter, then four, stepdaughter, then 11, and I would now experience education from a student and teacher perspective on a digital platform.

This couldn’t last too long, though, right?

Our family has spent much of the last year in relative isolation with very few exceptions. We did not see family for the traditional Easter dinner and egg hunt. A few months passed and we were also missing from the Memorial Day and Fourth of July barbecues. Vacation? Well, after my panic attack at a relatively empty mini golf course on Father’s Day, our options were limited. We settled on Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio — a county that saw fewer than 45 COVID-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

That paled in stark comparison to our hometown of Berks County, Pennsylvania, where numbers spiked higher than most others in the state. After Thanksgiving, (you guessed it: another holiday we chose to celebrate with our children alone) the number of cases per day ranged, on average, from 225-250 new COVID-positive residents.

But let’s take a step back. Summer came and went and our only socialization came from a few close relatives, and friends who feel more like family than friends, who were also being cautious.

Then, the spike shortly after Halloween as schools loosened restrictions and, frankly, people seemed less and less interested in continuing to follow the recommendations by our state DOH, numbers skyrocketed.

Until very recently, given various vaccinations and antibody infusions across households, the closest thing we got to seeing people outside our immediate family unit was if I went to the door too quickly after a Shipt shopper dropped off a grocery order from Target.

We are fortunate enough to have our girls in schools that allow families to choose between a full virtual or hybrid model option. I too have been fully virtual as a ninth grade English teacher. Our reality since August.

I know what you’re thinking (or at least many of you are): these kids need to be back in school. I agree, and I do not. It is not that simple.

I see the cases of anxiety and depression spiking across our country, and frighteningly, the population of youth suicides is getting younger in age.

My husband and I do not take this lightly.

Our 12-year-old attends horseback riding lessons, fully masked, and often in an outdoor arena, save in-climate weather. She earned a lead role in her school’s production of “Hans Christian Andersen” via a virtual Drama Club.

Ask her if she sees any benefit to going back now that more kids are, and with less than 3 months left in the school year, and she’ll tell you it will do more harm to the schedule and comfort zone she and her virtual friends have been in since late August.


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Our five-year-old? She would sprint toward that school bus (assuming her district follows through with their new in-person, hybrid model, which is pending a board vote) faster than she would accept an ice cream sundae, if we let her.

The truth is, as one of the youngest in her class, and in spite of her teacher being the most remarkable we could have imagined as our little girl began her first real school experience behind an iPad, it seems like an awful lot to ask of any teacher to ensure a room of five- and six-year-olds keep their masks in place for lessons, let alone the bus ride to and from school.

As her superintendent said in one of their many school board meetings, this will be the farthest thing from normal school kids will ever see.

Kindergarten classrooms, meant to house magic and creativity, walls within which kids normally learn to share and collaborate, now have taped off dots where our littles can “get their wiggles out” and toy bins you choose for the week. You pick the legos, and you have legos for your two hybrid days before they sanitize those items for the next group to come in.

Tables will be spaced 3-6 feet apart, with two kids at each table, separated by plexiglass shields to protect them from each other. This has some parents saying they will not make their child wear a mask because “why would they need it with plexiglass?” Complete and maddening ignorance.

Recess where they can see but not touch any of the equipment.

Even more frustrating, and no, we in no way fault the school or her teacher, whom we love; our daughter will miss an entire week of instruction because we are opting for full virtual as others transition back to the building two days a week.

There will be no more 10 minute videos employing the “I do, We do, You do” strategy our daughter and so many others have come to rely on and love, because, and understandably so, the kindergarten teachers will no longer have the extra time to devote to those.

And honestly, because Pennsylvania does not list kindergarten as a mandatory part of schooling, us parents do not have much say no matter how much we communicate our concerns about lost instructional time. In fact we were told the opposite. That our daughter’s day would not change much by being virtual and that other classmates were doing the same. Most of the kids whose parents work from home opted to keep them there, as we are for the time being, to see how many glitches and inevitable shutdowns there will be. A confusing, and quite likely, back and forth for little kids who haven’t even seen the inside of their own school yet.

This is not what we want our daughter to think school (or education in general) is supposed to look like.

Now that my husband and I are both vaccinated though, we have enrolled her in that coveted gymnastics class. One she’s begged for.

Some may judge what we see as a compromise: the risk-benefit factor.

The gym is following all COVID protocols. Masks, sanitizing equipment between uses, distancing, etc. They are even limiting entry to only one parent per child. The risk-benefit factor is a very fractional risk of exposure and a high benefit of socialization for her as she remains fully virtual in school.

Her first class was impressive for many reasons.

Just to clarify, none of this means we’re throwing caution to the wind just because we’re vaccinated. Numbers are back much closer to summertime numbers per day. We’ll be following protocols and mask mandates, sanitizing like there is no tomorrow as we have been. Still social distancing in public, and only having people in our home who have been vaccinated (or had the infusions as a treatment still actively in their system). We would also never force our children to do anything they are uncomfortable with. It will always be a conversation with them. They know how seriously we take everyone’s safety.