Karen Libber Fishbein, LCSW, is a therapist and mother who lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two daughters. As a licensed clinical social worker, Karen specializes in counseling college students and young adults with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating issues, relational challenges and difficult family dynamics.
It is Back to School Season 2020! What does that mean this year amid the coronavirus pandemic? It certainly is different than other years. I can think of numerous possibilities and options for school, and none of them are ideal. Five options are listed below. Each option has its own risks and challenges for children, families, and teachers.
Option One: Our children go to school daily in person, like all other years, and we worry for their safety, their teachers’ safety, and the safety of their parents and caregivers.
Option Two: Children go to school two or three days per week, or alternatively each day but for less time than usual. This option likely involves fewer students in each class. Yes, exposure to COVID is theoretically reduced in this model, but there is still some risk, and what are parents and caregivers supposed to do if they work during the days/times their children aren’t in school?
Option Three: Children engage in entirely virtual learning. Of course, this greatly reduces the risk of the virus inflicting students, families, and teachers, but how much learning can children actually absorb via Zoom, online programming, or Google chat? Also, who is supposed to coordinate and supervise this learning? I have you in mind, parents and caregivers who are lucky enough to be able to work from home, but also have demanding jobs. For parents who work on-site, this scenario is even more challenging. Also, what about socialization with other children? I find it hard to believe that virtual school can provide the adequate level of socialization children need to develop into their best selves.
Option Four: Parent(s) take(s) time away from the workforce to provide care/instruction for their children at home; for all intents and purposes, this is homeschooling. For the right parent/children this may be feasible, but what will the long-term costs be for the parent who exits the workforce for an extended period? Also, what does socialization look like in this group as well? How can families guiding their children’s learning at home engage in socialization in a safe way?
A final fifth option involves creating a learning pod of a few children and one teacher. This seems like the best scenario to reduce risk and increase learning, but it is not without significant financial expenses and logistical hurdles. How are parents supposed to achieve a full day’s worth of work while hosting multiple children in their home to learn, especially younger children? Children are hardwired to explore their surroundings physically and cognitively, ask questions, laugh, and learn experientially (particularly through play). I cannot imagine having a teacher and multiple children doing what they are supposed to do in my modest 2400 square foot home, while both my husband and I are expected to work remotely.
I am a mom to two daughters, ages almost five and seven. They are both terrific kids (yes, I am biased), but I do wonder what kind of long-term impact their recent schooling (or lack thereof) may have on their futures. My husband and I tried to engage our seven-year-old in her virtual first grade class this past spring, but she was way more interested in hands-on learning. We visited a local farm each week, she learned about gardening and baking, she took up singing as a hobby, and she started piano lessons with her grandfather. In the home environment, engaging with her Google classroom or examining different academic materials was very boring, and she would tune out quickly.
Interestingly, our almost five-year-old has benefitted greatly from the extra time at home with her family and away from a structured school setting. Her appetite and sleep have improved, and her semi-frequent behavioral outbursts have almost disappeared. What does this mean for her return to school? Well it’s a bit complicated! We currently have her enrolled in kindergarten as one of the youngest students in her class; her birthday is the cutoff date. Our school’s current plan is to be virtual through the middle of November at the earliest. Given her progress over the last few months, her young age, and the thought of a five-year-old being plugged into a screen for daily learning, we plan to pull her from kindergarten this year and start her next year.
This is the first time in history when virtual education of our youth is the most viable option. It will probably be one of the greatest social experiments of our time, and our children will be the guinea pigs. How will this new way of learning influence our children? While they may not be as advanced in reading, writing, or math as their recent predecessors, I remain hopeful that living through the pandemic will develop different skills and strengths that will shape their futures in meaningful, intangible ways.