All the Options for Schooling Are Bad—But We Have to Choose Safety

On parents’ impossible decision.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield

A Boston Public School student prepares for a caravan protest in Boston, MA, on August 13, as parents, teachers and students engage in an ongoing debate about the reopening of schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

I am among the mil­lions of par­ents around the coun­try (and more around the world) won­der­ing whether to send our chil­dren back to school. The mere ques­tion evokes con­flict­ing thoughts that usu­al­ly end in con­fu­sion and exas­per­a­tion. It’s a big deci­sion, one that most par­ents feel ill-equipped to make.

Let’s be real: This nov­el coro­n­avirus still stumps world-renowned epi­demi­ol­o­gists. How can par­ents ade­quate­ly ascer­tain what’s best? My kids have tear­ful­ly inti­mat­ed on more occa­sions than I care to acknowl­edge that they want to go back — to actu­al­ly leave the house, learn from their teach­ers in per­son, spend time with friends beyond a lap­top screen. My hus­band and I want that, too. If only it were that simple. 

By August 30 at least 36 states had report­ed pos­i­tive cas­es at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, adding more than 8,700 cas­es to America’s total. My heart sinks think­ing of that now-infa­mous pho­to of Geor­gia high school stu­dents — a state where I once lived — mask­less and crammed togeth­er in a nar­row hall­way, no social dis­tanc­ing in sight. Pre­dictably, nine stu­dents and staff test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid and the school tem­porar­i­ly closed. It’s not quite a ring­ing endorse­ment for return. 

And those were teenagers. The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, they have the capac­i­ty to grasp the con­se­quences of a pub­lic health cri­sis. My ram­bunc­tious 8- and 6‑year-old sons? Not so much. Before the pan­dem­ic, we were still work­ing on the whole wash your hands” thing. I am not opti­mistic they could keep a mask on for an entire school day. 

The sto­ry of lit­tle Kimo­ra Lynum — Kim­mie” as her fam­i­ly affec­tion­ate­ly called her — adds to my nev­er-end­ing anx­i­ety. The 9‑year-old Flori­da girl loved to play video games and dance to YouTube and Tik­Tok videos, just like my boys. After a sud­den onset of a high fever and severe stom­ach pains in July, Kim­mie was mis­di­ag­nosed with a uri­nary tract infec­tion at a local hos­pi­tal. She was sent home with Tylenol and antibi­otics. Less than a week lat­er, she died. A posthu­mous test deter­mined Kim­mie had Covid. 

My heart aches for her moth­er, Mikasha Young­Holmes, who lost her only child. The pre­lim­i­nary evi­dence sug­gests younger chil­dren are less like­ly to become infect­ed, but it is hard to stave off the fear of one of my sons becom­ing that rare case. Kim­mie was African Amer­i­can, like my fam­i­ly and me. Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, we are at ele­vat­ed risk. 

But I admit I face yet anoth­er truth, as do many par­ents who pri­vate­ly admit it: I am tired. We want back our B.C.” lives, the ones from before Covid19.” Hav­ing kids in school would cer­tain­ly help. My fam­i­ly and I have done our best to stay upbeat and cre­ative, but we can only do so many movie nights, paint par­ties and day trips con­fined in a car. 

And I rec­og­nize the priv­i­lege that bore­dom and cab­in fever are among our most press­ing con­cerns. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are strug­gling with ill­ness, loss of life and loss of liveli­hoods. Many par­ents — espe­cial­ly low-wage ser­vice work­ers, dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black and brown — have been deemed essen­tial,” forc­ing them to the front lines. With­out schools open, where will their chil­dren go while they go to work? The lack of high-qual­i­ty, afford­able child care and relat­ed sup­port sys­tems must be fac­tored into any deci­sion about clos­ing or reopen­ing schools.

My kids’ school dis­trict in Col­orado reopened in August, about two weeks lat­er than usu­al, and online learn­ing will con­tin­ue at least through mid-Octo­ber. At least two K‑12 schools in Col­orado have already report­ed out­breaks (mul­ti­ple infec­tions linked to the same loca­tion or event), both involv­ing staff. More cas­es were dis­cov­ered at oth­er schools, after stu­dents were test­ed pre­emp­tive­ly. We have been warned that our in-per­son start date could be pushed back if cas­es con­tin­ue to rise. Ulti­mate­ly, I agree with this choice, even if it won’t be easy. Safe­ty must come first.

Con­sid­er, again, the state of Geor­gia. Gov. Bri­an Kemp pushed for his state and schools to reopen, yet the governor’s man­sion where he lives remains closed to pub­lic tours indef­i­nite­ly, accord­ing to its web­site, to ensure the health and safe­ty of Geor­gia families.”

Some­thing tells me school dis­tricts should be doing the same.

This piece is a response to What Does a Safe Return” to School Look Like? Ask Teacher Unions.” by Lois Wein­er and Jack­son Potter.

Chan­dra Thomas Whit­field is a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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