Families face a variety of challenges with the delays in sending their kids back to school for in-person learning.
Some parents and students have adjusted more easily than others. Some are dissatisfied with the current model, which has most students learning remotely at home with plans to bring them back to school part time later. They say it is having a huge impact on their lives and the mental health of their chidren, as well as inhibiting the students’ ability to connect with services they need.
Elementary school students are headed back to the classroom in November in a new plan presented by the Anacortes School District. Middle school would return in December, and high school students would go back in February.
In a recent survey put out by the district, 96% of the 1,600 responses received asked for a return to in-person learning, according to the district. The survey asked parents to comment on the proposed phased-in plan, with elementary students starting back up in November. Roughly 75% said they supported the plan to bring them back, Superintendent Justin Irish said. A little more than 20% said they wanted students back, but with some reservations.
The district understand parents want their kids in school and is working out details for a safe return, Irish said. Those details include cleaning schedules, class sizes and transportation schedules, he said.
“We are really trying hard to meet everybody’s needs,” he said. “We understand families are trying to juggle work, school and home. It’s hard.”
Colleen Jackson has two students at the middle school, one in sixth grade and one in eighth. She said she is lucky to work at home so she can help her kids with school, but she has seen the toll online school is taking on her children.
“It needs to end right now,” she said. “I love Anacortes, I love the middle school, and I love all the teachers,. I want my children to be with them in a classroom setting.”
Concern for the mental well-being of children outweighs her fears for the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. Longterm effects on the children’s mental and emotional health is worse than the possibility that children will get the disease, she said.
Jackson said she knows some people are scared and want to keep their kids at home.
“That’s fine; they should be able to do that,” she said. “And I
should be able to send my kids to school. It should be parents’ choice.”
A major focus is being put on early learners right now, she said. That’s good, but the district shouldn’t forget older kids, she said.
In that plan, the middle school students will head back in December, but Jackson said she has doubts that will happen.
She is considering pulling her students out of the district if nothing changes soon.
Alyssa Stiller said she, too, has had it with online school.
She is a single mom who works two jobs and raises an 11-year-old.
Her fifth-grade son has ADHD and a sensory processing disorder.
“Trying to keep him focused seems impossible,” she said.
Stiller said she hired someone to come into her home, help her son keep up with school work and stay on track. That person has been a life-saver, she said.
Stiller said she has doubts the COVID-19 pandemic is real and has no fear about her son going back to school. She said being with peers in a school setting is what is best for him.
Even though he has a sensory processing disorder and has a hard time with some fabrics, her son has been wearing his mask around the house to show her he is ready to wear it to school, she said.
“He wants to go to school,” she said. “He needs to get out of the house. This is hard on a kid.”
Nichole Robinson has a first-grader and ninth-grader.
The high school freshman is fine with online school, can handle the technology and connect with the work.
Her first-grader struggles with sitting in front of a computer for hours, staying focused and working through things in an online environment.
“I will mask him, glove him. I just want him to be able to go back to school,” she said last week.
For now, Robinson is taking mornings off from work so she can assist her youngest, and her husband comes home midday and takes over.
Not every family has such options.
She also knows going back to school for half-days will be a challenge for many families, but said her youngest is excited to get back in the classroom and have social interaction that is sorely lacking right now.
“Even an hour a day would be better than this,” she said.
For other families, the adjustment has not been such a challenge.
Erica Perkins has a 5-year-old in kindergarten this year. She is picking up computer skills quickly and is enjoying the content for the most part, Perkins said.
There have been some struggles with how fast the online programming switches topics, but it’s being worked out, she said.
Perkins said her daughter looks forward to joining her kindergarten class in person for the first time next month. She also feels like the district is doing everything it can to make sure they are following state guidelines.
There isn’t a solution that works for everybody, she said.
She worries about parents hitting burnout levels. She and her husband also have a 3-year-old who is in full-time daycare because they can’t work full time, help their daughter with kindergarten and care for him all at once.
Darene Follett said she has found some positives in the online model. Her youngest son, who has special needs, goes to in-person learning two days a week with the life skills classes already and is good at wearing a mask, washing up and staying safe.
He wants to go back to school but also has found success with online learning. He’s comfortable at home and focuses better without the constant distraction and stimulation of being with other students.
It’s hard for everyone, Follett said. She encouraged parents to reach out to the school when they have issues. Too often, people talk about how things are not working for their child, but they don’t reach out to school officials to find solutions, she said.
Mary Holland has a sixth grader in the fully online ASD@Home program. She said she asked him if he would be sad when his friends went back to school in person and he could not, but he said he prefers the online version.
For the first time, he is confident in school and test-taking, she said.
Amber Moffitt pulled her two boys, one in kindergarten and one in third grade, from the district this year.
Moffitt said she was unsatisfied with the options offered. She and her husband work and cannot sit next to their kindergartner the entire time he is supposed to be working online, she said.
She wanted to find curricula that offered work that didn’t require her kids to be in front of a screen all day, she said.
After a lot of research, she found what she was seeking. One of her students is focused more on math and science and the other more on reading.
“I’m very, very happy with our decision,” she said.
A safe return
Taking the time to figure out details now means the return to school will be as smooth as possible, Irish said.
For the 4% of families that don’t want to come back to school, the district is reaching out to find solutions, such as enrolling in the ASD@Home fully online model, Irish said.
Unfortunately, there is no way to create a third option that would have students continue in the hybrid model yet work only from home.
“We just don’t have the resources for that,” he said.
Some parents have decided to leave the school district because of current options and regulations.
Before the school year started, the district budgeted for a 300-student or 10% reduction in enrollment (equating to roughly $2 million lost in state funding). Actual enrollment numbers show about 100 more students leaving than planned, Irish said.
Remote learning is not the preferred choice for most families, Irish acknowledged and said the district is working hard to make the best of the situation at the same time it prepares to bring students back to school.
“As fast as we can, and as long as it’s safe to do so, we want to bring back learning in-person and make sure our kids are actively engaged in athletics and co-curricular activities,” Irish said.
In the new plan, those in kindergarten to third grade will return to school for half-days four days a week starting Monday, Nov. 2. Those students in fourth and fifth grade will start in their half day schedules Nov. 9.
At the elementary level, each student will be in either a morning or afternoon group. Wednesdays will be at-home learning days.
There is a staggered start time and dismissal time for each school to help with transporting students to and from school safely, according to the district.
The half-day program should give elementary students more in-person learning time during the week and help with ensuring students have access to meals, according to a release from the district.
Meanwhile, middle school students should return in early December, while high school should start Feb. 8.
Other activities are starting back up, too.
Coaches started meeting with small groups of athletes (less than five at a time) for practices this week.
Right now, the earliest team sports could start play is Dec. 28 with the winter sports season, but those sports cannot start competing until the county is in Phase 4 of the state’s Safe Start plan.
Currently, Skagit County is in Phase 2.