COVID and the School Decision: One Mother’s Struggle

Dr. Corinne Masur


In late August and early September when schools finally decided about how they were going to open, many of them then passed the decision making on to parents: in school, out of school, or hybrid?

How were parents supposed to decide?

There were so many factors: what is possible for our family given our work and child care situations? What is safest for our family? What do our children want? What do we want for our children?

Parents had to weigh one important aspect of their children’s wellbeing against another.  These were impossible choices. What was more important, caution in the face of COVID, the children’s social needs, or the financial needs of the family?  In some cases, parents had to choose between their own jobs and becoming distance learning aids. In other cases, parents had no choice: they had to work so their children just had to go back to school.

One mother called me for advice. She had two sons, one in first grade and one in fourth.  She was very worried about the children being exposed to COVID for two reasons. One son had a respiratory vulnerability and secondly, the children’s grandfather had recently had cancer and was immunocompromised following a transplant. What if they went to school, were exposed to COVID and then exposed him either directly or indirectly?

On the other hand, she wanted her children to be able to build relationships with their new teachers and classmates.

As a person who likes to make her decisions carefully and in an informed way, she felt overwhelmed both by too much information and too little.

By late summer, we knew a great deal more about the transmission of COVID than we had in March at the beginning of the pandemic.  This mother understood how COVID is transmitted and as a result, what the school would need to do to keep children and staff safe. They would have to provide good ventilation and air exchange inside the building and they would also need to provide the possibility for having as many classes outdoors as possible.  But her particular school was not giving parents information about their HVAC system and they did not have a plan in place for outdoor learning.  When this mom went over to look at the school, they only had one small tent standing – which of course would be totally insufficient for the hundreds of children attending school in the fall.

What were they planning for outdoor learning, anyway?  And what would they do on rainy days? She could not get answers.  And through a friend she heard that the school had told one parent that if they had so many questions, they should just do the at home option – as if these questions were not the school’s responsibility to answer!

This mother had enjoyed a feeling of connectedness with her children’s school and now she felt isolated and alone.  As the deadline loomed for making her decision, she learned that very few parents in either of her son’s grades had chosen the at-home schooling option.  Why did so many parents feel it was safe to send their children to school when she did not? She wished she could ask them.

This is what went through this mother’s mind: if her children got COVID, she would be the one to take care of them as her husband simply would not be able to take time off from work; she would have to quit her job or take a leave.  If she got COVID, she had no idea who would take care of the children.  If the virus was transmitted to her mother either through her (this mom’s) infection or her children’s, she would be the one who would have to take care of her ill father – thus necessitating her quitting or taking a leave from her work. If her younger son got COVID he might be at risk for the more severe complications of the illness given his respiratory vulnerability.

She thought about the decision a great deal. She stayed up nights wondering what she should choose. She discussed this with her husband, with her friends, with her family.  She received all sorts of input – both conflicting and agreeing with her own thoughts. And in the end, she felt that her family was just too vulnerable.

The risks of illness were too great for this mother.  She decided on doing school from home.  She altered her work schedule and began being her children’s distance learning aid.  Her older son was okay some of the time but at other moments, he hated the arrangement. He screamed and cried and melted down. Her younger son was fine with online school.  And this mother? Well, she felt stressed, wondering every single day of the new school year if she had made the right decision.

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