Why I'm Still On The Fence About Sending My Kids Back To School In The Fall

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Even If Schools Are Back In Session In Fall, I'm Not Convinced I'll Send My Children
Scary Mommy and Laura Olivas/Getty

My kids haven’t attended school since mid-March when our state mandated shelter-in-place orders which included closing our physical school buildings. For nine weeks, we utilized distance-learning, and it was incredibly challenging. First, I have four kids who are in four different grades. Second, I’m a working mom, so I had to balance my job and e-schooling my children. Finally, even though I used to be a college teacher and I’m a former homeschooler, crisis-schooling wasn’t in my wheelhouse.

I’m very thankful we’re now on summer break, but I’m already anxious about the fall. Will our schools open? If they do, will they be implementing some or all of the CDC’s recently-released considerations for schools which outline safety suggestions? I read the long list of considerations, and they appear to be completely unrealistic and militant, which leads me to even more uncertainty. Even if schools do open in the fall, I’m not sure I’ll be sending my children.

To be fair, the CDC was very clear. Safety should come first, protecting students and staff from COVID-19 to the best of their abilities. They also shared that schools, along with their state and local health officials, get to decide what they will implement and how. They added, “Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community.”

I have faith in our local school district–thus far. They have responded swiftly to all our state mandates and sound medical advice, and I don’t see them doing a one-eighty anytime soon. However, the considerations offered by the CDC seem to cater to a certain type of student, one who is typically developing and is physically, mentally, and emotionally stable. What about children with special needs? The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires that eligible students ages three to twenty-one receive a free and appropriate public school education. Data from the 2018-2019 school year shows that 14% of public school students received special education services under IDEA. How do the CDC guidelines protect and support them?

One example is the CDC’s food service guidelines, which include having students bring their own meals or serving “individually plated meals in classrooms instead of in a communal dining hall or cafeteria, while ensuring the safety of children with food allergies.” Yet, if students are to eat in classrooms, the CDC suggests kids sit in desks or at tables, distanced six feet apart. How is this safe for children with food allergies? The CDC’s own site reports that approximately 8% of children in the United States, or one in every thirteen kids, has a food allergy. They estimate that to be about two children per classroom. We can’t expect teachers to be responsible for checking every single lunch for the eight most common: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish. Yet, it’s absolutely essential to protect children with food allergies from an anaphylactic reaction. I have a child with a tree nut allergy—and it’s no joke. One oversight and things could go south very quickly.

As a mom of two children who require special education services, another guideline I found particularly impossible was “groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days.” Additionally, “groups do not mix.” How will students with individual education plans (IEPs) receive the services they are entitled to if they cannot go to a special education classroom, or to one of the therapy rooms (such as speech, occupational, or physical)? Having the special education teacher or therapist come into the general education classroom, pulling a students aside isn’t feasible either. Not only is it othering, but it’s not fully meeting the student’s needs.

We all know the importance of wearing a mask, but the CDC’s recommendations are unrealistic. They want schools to “teach and reinforce the use of cloth face coverings.” They acknowledge that this can be challenging for younger students to wear a mask all day. Yet, they say, “Individuals should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering and to wash their hands frequently.” Once again, teachers are going to be expected to do all-the-things (you know, like teach), as well as thoroughly examine kids’ lunches, make sure students stay six feet apart, wash their hands, and not touch their mask? Furthermore, students with sensory issues, including many students with autism, aren’t going to keep a mask on. Oh, and how is my child supposed to do their speech therapy sessions with a mask on?

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One of the recommendation sections that most bothered me was about signage. The CDC suggests posting signs “in highly visible locations” that remind students and staff about hand-washing and mask-wearing. Fine. But then they encourage schools to “broadcast regular announcements on reducing the spread of COVID-19 on PA systems,” as well as use e-mail, their websites, and social media to share messages of how to prevent spreading COVID-19. While occasional reminders can be good thing, this sounds like a nightmare for a student (or staff member) who already has an anxiety disorder. They will not only be verbally bombarded with “stop touching your mask” and “wash your hands,” even if it’s not directed at them but at another student, but they’ll have to listen to coronavirus warnings and information via the PA system and signage. I’m about to have a panic attack just thinking about it.

Other guidelines, including distancing, made me want to weep. These include “install physical barriers” in “areas where it is difficult for individuals to remain at least 6 feet apart.” Also, “provide physical guides, such as tape on floors or sidewalks and signs on walls, to ensure that staff and children remain at least 6 feet apart in lines” making sure there are “one way routes in hallways.” They want reminders everywhere. What about the cheesy inspirational posters and themed bulletin boards? Are they to be replaced with sheer terror?

The real kicker for me as a parent? “Close communal use shared spaces such as dining halls and playgrounds with shared playground equipment if possible.” If it’s not possible, “stagger use and clean and disinfect between use.” Kids don’t get enough recess as it is, but now we either need to close the playgrounds or somehow make kids socially distance on a playground, while wearing a mask, and then disinfecting after each round of kids plays? Recess is essential to learning, but we’re going to limit it even more, or worse, eliminate it?

Even just a few of these guidelines, which again only sometimes-maybe cater to students who do not have any special needs, reminds me of some sort of bizarre dystopia. How can kids be kids with patricians between bathroom sinks, walking one-way down the halls, and not coming within six feet of another human for an entire school day? How will they be able to learn?

Maybe I’m old school (pun intended), but we hugged our teachers in grade school. We loved doing group work on the classroom floor, especially anything sciencey. And recess? We had four a day, where we’d hang from the monkey bars, play multiple kick ball games, jump rope, and play four-square. Socializing with our peers was a major part of our learning experience. We would then scamper back into the school building, gulp from the water fountain, and then sit still for a decent period of time so our teacher could educate us on how to subtract.

The CDC has been clear, telling us the safest option is for schools to remain virtual. However, if districts opt to resume in-class learning, the CDC is sharing how to stay safe. Unfortunately, I fear that safety will come with a tremendous cost. The potential for emotional and mental distress is legit. What will the implementation of protective practices cause in all kids and staff? For children with special needs of any kind, there are major issues with many of the recommended practices.

I get that having the option to decide how my kids are educated in the fall is privileged. Many of my friends do not have the option to keep their children home if schools open. Some of my friends are teachers themselves. If they don’t return to the classroom, if required, they’ll be out of a job. Other parents rely on the school district for therapies, food, and safe shelter for their child. Though it is a struggle for us to homeschool our children while working, it is doable.

When fall arrives and if schools open, I’ll have to take a long, hard look at which of the CDC’s suggestions are going to be practiced before I decide to send my kids or keep them home. It’s too early to tell, but I’m already on the edge of my seat.

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