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By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO
Karen Shepherd has done better than some during the coronavirus pandemic.
She still has a job as an outreach specialist in a D.C. medical office. She still has a roof over her head, when many across the nation have lost their homes.
But she also has four school-aged children. With four different teachers and four unique sets of expectations for each of her four scholars. And a full eight hour work day.
“I am stressed out to the max,” said Shepherd, a single mother of children ages 13, 12, 8, and 5. “I have a friend helping, but she has kids herself. I can’t afford to pay anyone full-time.”
For Shepherd, distance learning is the safest option, but it leaves her with one question: “Who’s going to watch my four kids?”
It’s a very real concern for the parents of 35 million students expected by the National Center for Education Statistics to attend an elementary or middle school in the Fall 2020 semester.
Months after derailing the 2019-2020 school year, the coronavirus pandemic now looms over the 2020-2021 term as districts scramble to continue distance learning, return to normal, or offer a hybrid of virtual and in-person classes.
Parents and pundits alike continue to haggle over the safety of in-person classes- even though thousands of students have already returned to classrooms for the Fall semester.
And while distance learning might be limited to tech issues for some parents, for some families the public school closures only compound a host of issues not unique to living in a pandemic- such as employment, housing, and food stability.
According to information released by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), all students will start Fall 2020 learning at home. “This will apply for all grades, pre-k through 12th, and last at least through term one from August 31 to November 6.”
Shepherd said communication with parents has been spotty and procuring work packets for four children, ensuring the pamphlets are completed, and submitting work to each teacher was a struggle last year. Still, her children will continue distance learning as long as coronavirus is a threat.
“I became a full-time teacher without pay just because I want my children to succeed,” said Shepherd. “I can’t trust others with my kid’s safety. They brought bed bugs to both my kids schools last year- but it’s safe for COVID-19? I’m using my own judgment- even if I have to quit my job.”
And she isn’t the only one who feels that way.
Many parents say their child’s physical health is of the utmost importance. Some are considering home-school or online public school offerings as an option for the first time.
Michelle Duberry works from home and says the pandemic convinced her to give her boys a different experience outside of Baltimore County Public Schools.
“The County has done the best they could considering the situation, but for my family, distance learning didn’t work at all. My kids weren’t interested or engaged,” said Duberry. “We’re pulling the kids this Fall and putting them in online public school just so we can have more autonomy and go at our own pace.”
According to the reopening plan released by Baltimore County Public Schools, students will receive virtual instruction through January 29, 2021. Between February and June, a hybrid model will be used if deemed safe, but “full-time virtual learning will remain an option for parents.”
Duberry said she feels comfortable moving her two boys to full-time public school online because she is a former teacher and has her mother, a qualified reading specialist and current ESOL teacher, living in the home with her.
“They know the basics and they know how to read,” she said. “I’m not worried about them falling behind. Children are resilient and they’re going to be okay. Most important is their physical health.”
Bomani Armah, an internationally known artist and educator who resides in Prince George’s County, Md., has two school-aged boys who would typically be considered high school freshman. His boys haven’t been in public school since first grade, but one of his sons was ready to become a traditional freshman in the Fall.
“He just wanted to experience it, but quarantine squashed that whole idea,” said Armah.
For now, his sons will continue at Wilson Baker Academy Homeschool Collective For Excellence and Achievement, which operates like a private school. The collective of more than 100 students normally meets in person, but like many public schools, they are learning virtually until 2021.
“We’re always doing drumming, capoeira, or some kind of cultural event,” said Armah. “At the beginning of the pandemic we were doing normal stuff and one family got hit, and then another. As a group we decided to do school from home and revisit it in January.”
Armah says it is important to understand that the distance learning experience millions of students are having right now might look similar to homeschooling, but it is very different.
“This is crisis teaching,” said Armah. “Distance learning and homeschooling happen on purpose.”
The arts educator said that many parents are worrying about their children “falling behind” due to traditional systems that base student grade levels off of their birthdates.
“Our children are not ‘falling behind;’ we’re going through something right now,” said Armah. “We all need to slow down and take care of our mental and emotional health.”
“People are losing their grandparents, their mothers, and their sisters and expecting children to stay on task while their whole family might be getting wiped out. We don’t have to force our way through this and act like nothing is wrong.”
While parents are adapting to the challenges of distance learning at varying levels, parents of students with individualized education programs (IEPs) have an added layer of stress.
Kenji Jackson has an 8-year-old son on the autism spectrum at The Shafer Center for Early Intervention in Owings Mills, Md. At the beginning of the pandemic Jackson said his son’s school created a plan for hybrid learning. There were A and B schedules. The 60 enrolled students would rotate so only one child would be in the class with their group of teachers.
Jackson thought it was something he would be willing to do with only a little apprehension. And then reality set in.
“One of the staff members tested positive before it was even able to be implemented. They shut the whole idea down until January,” said Jackson. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s not stepping foot into a school building until COVID-19 is done or there is a vaccine.”
Jackson’s son has a mix of virtual learning sessions during week and works with an applied behavior analysis therapist from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the afternoons.
“I’m not putting my son’s life in the hands of other people. It’s not that those people are careless. You could be doing everything you are supposed to do, and then slip and touch the wrong thing.”
Jackson says he realizes he is in a privileged situation, albeit well-deserved after two traumatic experiences with public schools in his area.
Da’Shauna Dean and her husband Mike, have four DCPS students; two with special needs that she says struggle to learn in a home setting.
“I was anxious and overwhelmed when we began distance learning back in March. I didn’t feel like I was capable enough to make sure my children would be able to learn at home.”
Dean told the AFRO that her children with special needs are easily distracted at home by everything; traffic outside, siblings walking around the house and anything on the television.
“We were considering having someone come to the house to work with them, but I’m still not sure that’s a good idea with the pandemic still out of control. My mother-in-law has complicated health issues, and my daughter has an autoimmune problem. I don’t want my children to slide back in their progress with their IEPs, but I also don’t want to risk our health.”
Dean’s situation is not unique. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “in 2016, there were 7.2 million grandparents living with their grandchildren, and over 2.5 million were responsible for their grandchildren’s basic needs.”
That fact has been a crucial factor for many parents who are considering school reopening.
“I don’t want to be the reason my mom is six feet under ground,” said Shelly Bean.
“In my mind, nothing has changed since March. Our initial reasons for pulling our kids out of school and daycare still stand today,” said Bean, who has been an educator for 14 years. “My mom lives with us. We may not get sick, but we could bring something home and she could get sick.”
“We all know that parents send their children to school sick. I don’t have enough trust in people to keep their sick children home, especially if they’re not displaying any symptoms.”
Joseph Kane, chair of the Parent and Community Advisory Board for Baltimore City Public Schools says his four children have had different experiences with distance learning.
Kane has two rising 10th graders, a middle schooler, and a second grader. “For my second grader, virtual learning has been an adjustment. He’s kind of shy and would rather turn his camera off, but sit and listen. The middle schooler needs one on one attention to learn new math concepts, and the older ones go to Baltimore School for the Arts.”
“Trying to learn ballet or play clarinet as part of a band virtually isn’t ideal,” said Kane, “but everyone understands that there is no perfect answer.”
Baltimore City Public Schools has announced that students will virtually attend classes beginning on Sept. 8, with an “update on next steps with hybrid model” by October 16.
“The decision to start virtually is obviously the right decision,” said Kane, “But we put this arbitrary Oct. 16 date out there and that’s really only a month after school opens.”
“Parents, community members, and legal guardians need the ability to plan long term. If we were to go into a hybrid model in the middle of a semester that could throw families into dysfunction,” said Kane.
According to the reopening plan released by Baltimore City Public Schools, the district presented its draft recovery plan on July 28.
“We held listening sessions with parents and advocates, students, families, school leaders, partners and other community members to gain their feedback,” reads the plan. “We’ve incorporated updates into this reopening plan based on their input, such as sharing expectations and additional details for special education populations.”
Kane said that while the district did invite PCAB and stakeholders to participate and give input, the ability to actually make and influence decisions hasn’t been there.
“We’re the greatest asset that’s not being used. They put their professional caps on to figure out a plan that works with all of their expertise without having a parent voice represented as strongly as those other inputs,” Kane told the AFRO.
“As a result, we see a schedule that is only optimal if we lived in Mayberry with wifi in two parent family homes. We live in Baltimore, and I don’t think the nuances of Baltimore are included in this plan. If we had that, we would have multiple plans that reflect the uniqueness of Baltimore.”
As with Baltimore County, families of City schools will have an option to continue virtual learning even if a hybrid model is put in place.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, schools with the highest risk of spreading coronavirus have “in-person only learning, activities, and events” where “students mix freely between classes and activities” and “freely share objects.”
The hybrid model is listed as both “some” and “medium risk” due to the degrees of interaction and whether or not students and staff share objects.
Schools with the lowest risk of spreading coronavirus have students and teachers “engage in virtual-only classes, activities and events.”