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US schools reopen amid pandemic

Carla Bleiker Washington
August 23, 2020

As coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise in the US, many schools across the country have reopened or are set to do so. How worried are students, parents and teachers about the prospect of crowded classrooms?

USA Coronavirus Schulöffnung
Image: Imago Images/ZUMA Wire/M. Hertzberg

It's dinner time at Jaime Uitenbroek's house in Freedom, Wisconsin. She is taking the reporter's Zoom call from the kitchen, where she's slicing chicken while the mayhem from her two younger children, Jacob (2) and Claire (4) can be heard in the background. From the way she and oldest daughter Jordyn (11) manage to talk over the noise, you can tell that Uitenbroek isn't fazed by a little chaos. But still, almost five months of having all three kids in the house all the time hasn't been easy for the 30-year old, who runs her own health and wellness business from home.

"They have been here for forever," she says. 

Since March 16, to be exact. That is when the Freedom school district sent kids home and closed all schools because of the coronavirus pandemic. It's been the same for practically all 54 million students in the US: They had to trade their classroom desks for kitchen tables and face-to-face conversations with their teachers for video calls and distance-learning programs.

Wisconsin Schulstart Corona Familie Uitenbroek
Jaime Uitenbroek (right) with her family: Life has been a little crazy with three kids in the house all the timeImage: Holly Schauland Photography

But now schools are getting ready to start back up. US President Donald Trump has made it very clear he wants a return to normal and has threatened to cut federal funding for public schools that don't reinstate in-person instruction. But health experts have pointed out that sending students back into crowded classrooms without proper precautions endangers not only the children themselves, but also parents, teachers and other school staff.

"Why are we asking teachers, students and administrators to go back to school if people can't go to bars?" asks Teresa, a Washington, DC resident who only wants to be known by her first name because of her job — and who will not send her 5-year-old daughter Sasha to kindergarten this fall because of health concerns. "Asking schools to reopen should be considered criminal."

'I really want to go back'

Despite the political pressure, there is no one way of reopening that all schools adhere to. Some have already opened their doors again for full-time in-person instruction, some will start the school year with hybrid programs that have students come in on some days and study from home on others. And some will continue with distance-learning for the foreseeable future.

From what it looks like right now, Uitenbroek will send at least one of her kids back to school this fall. Jordyn is set to start sixth grade on September 1. "First year of middle school!" the girl throws in excitedly during the Zoom conversation. Jordyn "really want[s] to go back." She's looking forward to seeing her friends again. She wants to play clarinet in the school band, and she's excited to learn algebra — in a classroom environment with few distractions. 

Wisconsin Schulstart Corona Familie Uitenbroek
Jordyn (11) can't wait to leave distance learning behindImage: privat

"The hardest thing about online learning is staying focused," Jordyn says. Her mother points out that another struggle was sharing the family's computer, which Uitenbroek normally uses for work.

A lack of equipment is one of the problems families faced when schools suddenly had to switch to distance-learning because of the pandemic. Another is online access. In some rural areas, participating in a video call can be near-impossible because of slow Internet, if there is Internet at all.

Concerns about child development

Parents also worry that their child's development could suffer from being stuck at home instead of socializing at school.

Teresa says she and her husband have been from home and trying to keep a 5-year-old entertained has been a struggle. "There's no way that we as a family could go back to what we did in March."  But homeschooling also concerns her because of the changes she has witnessed in her daughter.

"The social and emotional impact on these kids is huge," says Teresa. She says she's watched her daughter go from being "extremely social and outgoing" to shy and hesitant. That's why Sasha will join a "learning pod" in the fall. Her parents, together with four other families, are hiring an education professional to watch and teach their kids from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday. The group will rotate between the five families' houses. That will allow the children to interact with other kids without being in kindergarten or in school.

USA Los Angeles Coronavirus Home Schooling
When school means sitting at the kitchen table with your siblings, like this family in LA, kids miss out on social developmentImage: Reuters/L. Nicholson

Hybrid programs: online and in-person classes

For children who do return to the classroom, things won't be normal either. Before the pandemic, Uitenbroek was all set to enroll younger daughter Claire in kindergarten this fall, but now she's not so sure. "It's like prison," she says. "They won't leave their classroom all day, the kids can't touch, masks are mandatory." 

Mitzi Wyland Wright is a kindergarten teacher in Moscow, Idaho. The 5-year olds in her class will have to wear masks all day as well. "It is hard," she says. Adding to the difficult situation is a shortage of funds. At Wyland Wright's school, each classroom is getting one sheet of Plexiglas. To try to encourage the children to keep their distance, the kindergarten teacher is crafting "privacy shields" out of cardboard for each little desk. The goal is to set up cubicles: The kids will sit "in their own little office," she says, trying to sound upbeat.

The elementary schools in Wyland Wright's district are starting school with a hybrid program on September 14. Each class will be divided into two groups. The children in group A will come in Monday and Tuesday and receive online instruction Thursday and Friday. For the children in group B, it will be the other way around. Parents who do not want to send their kids to school yet can opt for an entire online semester. Wyland Wright believes that will be the case for everyone anyway as soon as cases in the schools spike. "We know the hybrid model is going to be short-lived," she says. "It's not if we shut down again, but when."

Idaho Schulstart Coronakrise Mitzi Wyland Wright
Wyland Wright and her daughter Macie are ready to return to school — at least part-timeImage: privat

'If I have to wear a mask I'm not going!'

Wyland Wright is sad the she won't get to spend all week with her students, but she understands the risks. "My husband is a little bit worried for me," she says. "I'm not going to let fear run my life, though. I'm going to do my part in the community and help my kids become the best learners they can be." 

Macie, Wyland Wright's 8-year-old daughter, is on the same hybrid schedule as her mother's class. She wasn't too keen on returning to school initially when she heard of the rules.

"She said 'If I have to wear a mask all day I'm not going!'" Wyland Wright remembers. But that's changed. Now, "we catch her dancing in her mask at home."

The big strain of uncertainty

Back on the Zoom call in Wisconsin, Jordyn Uitenbroek is so excited to be on the middle school dance team that she does a few twirls in the kitchen. Whether there can be after-school activities in times of coronavirus is still up in the air, though. "I'm worried that for dance we're not going to have competitions," the 11-year old says.

Her mother is concerned about the overall picture. "It's not knowing what's going on. There are changes by the day," Uitenbroek says. "I'm still expecting [Jordyn's school] to go virtual before it even starts again."

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