My son had not been sick with the flu in two years, but on March 13 he woke up with a high fever and chills, and I made the easy decision to keep my second grader home to rest and feel better. I remember thinking he would be well in a few days and ready to return to school.
By the end of the day, I received the news that schools would be closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was an announcement that sent me reeling, rushing to find out what it meant, and what he needed from school since he wasn’t there that day to bring anything home. It was shocking and something I never expected.
As the weeks, then months, unfolded, we learned to deal with the uncertainty of whether he would return to his second grade class. We slogged our way through online learning, creating a schedule and routine until we eventually found our rhythm. We learned to cope with the understandable glitches of technology not intended for distance learning, sometimes adventurous Zoom meetings with his classmates, and meltdowns — his and mine.
What I quickly learned was that I am not a teacher. And I lack the specialized skills to help my son maintain attention and focus in this new learning model — a challenge for a child and a mom who both have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD. Despite the challenges, we stayed on top of his assignments, finishing them each day, and supporting him as he did the work. He struggled with working independently, and I often had to sit next to him to help him stay on task during instruction time.
It became a massive challenge as I tried to manage his schoolwork and my job for which I work from home. There were many evenings when I went to bed feeling as if I was failing at everything. But my employer was flexible and understanding, and my son’s teachers and school administration were incredibly supportive, and that made things a lot better.
When I look back at it, I feel blessed to have had the time to watch him learn and see how his brain works. And I do feel fortunate to know I was a part of the process. But I know he needs more supports than I can provide for him on a long-term basis.
My son has an individualized education program, with supports in place to give him extra attention in certain areas with teachers and aides who specialize in math and reading comprehension. Before the Ephrata Area School District came out with its plans for the fall, I agonized whether I should send him back to receive the help, if it was an option. I also was worried there would be measures — like prohibiting recess — that would make school feel like a prison to an extroverted, highly active 9-year-old child.
In early July, the district shared its plans, with the health and safety plan released first, then the learning options two weeks later. My fears for his safety were alleviated when I read the health and safety plan. I think the strategies are smart, thorough and practical.
Although he will be required to wear a mask most of the day, it seemed like the in-school model would still be better for him to receive the supports he needs, as well as social interaction with his classmates. And I believe the school staff will do their best to make the environment as safe as they can. So, our decision is to send him back via the modified-traditional option, which is full-time in-school instruction.
Like me, I know my friends who are also parents of school-age children struggle over what to do and how to feel confident in their decision. Cyberschool? Online learning? In-school learning? Home schooling? It reminded me of a meme circulating on social media of “Saturday Night Live” alum Kristen Wiig, playing her “Aunt Linda” character, with a confused expression on her face as she contemplates her back-to-school options. I am pretty sure I grimaced like Aunt Linda a few times when deciding what to do.
And while most of us are struggling to do what is best for our kids and their needs, some working families don’t have the luxury of keeping their kids home even if they wanted to.
Will I be judged for my decision to send my son back to school? Yep, probably. But I know in my heart that it’s best for him and his academic success. That said, I reserve my right to reevaluate my decision after the first semester to see what is working and what is not for him. And I am incredibly grateful I have a choice.
Angela M. Trout is a nonprofit professional, writer and mental health advocate. She and her family live in Akron.