From ‘I really can’t risk it’ to ‘I need help’: Newark parents weigh whether to send their children back to school

As Newark allows families to opt for online-only learning this fall, parents are deciding what’s best — and safest — for their children. (Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

While policymakers debate whether and how to reopen schools, millions of parents are grappling with their own wrenching decision: If classrooms do reopen, will they send their children?

In Newark, the district plans to offer in-person learning this fall, but families can request that their children continue learning remotely. The number of families who opt for online-only learning will have big consequences: It will determine how much space is available in classrooms for social distancing and how many teachers the district must bring into school buildings.

Unlike some districts, Newark has not released data on parents’ preferences for the fall. But recent surveys and interviews with parents offer a window into how some are deciding what is the best — and safest — way for their children to learn during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some families who are planning to send their children back to school say that remote learning isn’t effective or isn’t feasible because the parents must return to work. Parents who expect to keep their children out of school say they’re worried about the health risks of in-person learning and skeptical of new safety protocols.

“It will be virtually impossible to keep all the children and staff safe,” said Samantha Hollins, one of roughly 50 Newark parents who responded to Chalkbeat’s online questionnaire

Hollins said she doubts that students will keep their distance from one another or that the “prehistoric” school buildings will be properly ventilated. She worries that one of her four school-age children could become infected and spread the virus to their 71-year-old grandmother, who lives with the family.

So, despite the difficulties of virtual learning, she expects to keep her children home this fall.

“Better safe than sorry,” she said in an interview, echoing the parents who took Chalkbeat’s survey and overwhelmingly said they would request online learning. “I really can’t risk it.”

The Alliance for Newark Public Schools issued the district a report card based on the results of an online survey that garnered roughly 1,500 responses from Newark parents, students, educators, and community members. (Alliance for Newark Public Schools)

More than 400 Newark parents and guardians responded to a separate survey conducted by the Alliance for Newark Public Schools, a coalition of education advocacy groups. (The coalition used the responses to create a “community report card” that graded the district’s response to the pandemic; the district received mostly B+’s and one A-.)

Taken together, the two online surveys shed light on Newark families’ thinking about the coming school year, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 8. 

In both, a number of parents questioned whether Newark schools will be able to enforce the district’s new safety guidelines, such as requiring students to wear face masks and stay 6 feet apart. 

“[My] son who has autism won’t understand social distancing or he won’t wear a mask for long,” one parent wrote in the Alliance survey, which was open from late May through July.

The risk that children will become seriously ill from the coronavirus is relatively small. But new evidence suggests that children ages 10 and older can spread the virus just as easily as adults. That is deeply concerning to families with members who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age or underlying health conditions, leading some parents to say they won’t consider in-person learning until a vaccine is available.

“If the virus [is] still destroying lives and families, I prefer distance learning!” one person said in the Alliance survey, whose results were shared with Chalkbeat.

“I will be requesting online learning,” a different parent said in Chalkbeat’s survey. “Not only because we don’t feel it is safe for our children to return, but I have many kids that have respiratory problems and we will not put them in harm’s way.”

Several state and national polls have found that most parents are wary of reopening schools during the pandemic. Black and Hispanic parents appear particularly concerned about the risks of in-person learning, which could reflect the coronavirus’ disproportionate impact on those groups.

In Newark, where the coronavirus has caused more than 600 deaths, most families are acutely aware of the danger it poses. And yet, many parents say they will send their children back to school this fall. 

For some, it’s a matter of necessity. “Who is going to watch my kids when I have to work?” one father wrote to Chalkbeat, adding that he is “100% sending them back.”

Other parents seemed to have reached their limit after four months of quarantining with their children.

“I need help,” said a parent of five young children, including two with special needs, in the Alliance survey. “I’m so overwhelm[ed].”

For other families, their experience after the state shuttered schools in March left them disillusioned with remote learning. While many parents praised teachers who worked around the clock to stay virtually connected with students, some said others teachers did not communicate as frequently or offer live video lessons.

“Some teachers have gone above and beyond while others are riding out doing absolutely nothing,” one parent wrote in the Alliance survey. “I should be reinforcing what is being taught not having to completely teach lesson plans.”

A number of parents complained about trying to explain unfamiliar academic concepts to their children — “The last time I was in elementary school was in the 90’s. I learned the same material, but it was taught differently” — or having to supervise their children’s learning while holding down a job.

“I am not a teacher and find it really frustrating to combine work and teaching and making sure assignments are done,” another parent said. “When I am not there, they don’t work.”

Many more parents said they did not have reliable internet access at home or enough working computers for all of their children: “I need a Chromebook for each of my sons. They were primarily working with cell phones and then we borrowed a Chromebook for them to share,” one wrote.

Other parents said their children with disabilities did not get the services or modified teaching materials they are legally entitled to. Still others worried about the social-emotional strain on children as they witness the destruction caused by the pandemic and remain physically separated from teachers and classmates.

“Kids have had their world turned upside down,” one person wrote. “They miss their friends and the stability their school culture provides.”

Anna Da Silva is one of the parents who hopes to send her child back to a classroom this September. 

Her four-year-old daughter thrived in her East Ward preschool: “She progressed so much — I can’t even put into words how much,” Da Silva said in an interview with Chalkbeat. 

But when school went online, her daughter was reluctant to participate in Zoom lessons and rarely spoke. Knowing that young children are less likely to contract or spread the virus, Da Silva is more concerned about the developmental consequences of remote learning than the health risks of in-person learning.

“I think it’s extremely important that she is around kids,” she said. “Just staying home, they’ll fall behind.”

At an online forum Wednesday held by the Alliance for Newark Public Schools, Superintendent Roger León said he will give families more information about their fall options on Aug. 7. In the meantime, parents who want to request online-only learning can start reaching out to their schools, he added.

For now, many families are wrestling with a high-stakes decision that has no right answer.

“I want my children to be safe but I dislike online learning,” one parent said in the Alliance survey. “I’m at a crossroads.”

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