Blog: Returning to School(?) During COVID-19

Continuing the journey of RHP’s Wendi Egan and her family of six during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Egan’s are faced with a tough decision while considering the approaching 2020 / 2021 school year: full time at school, remote learning at home or a hybrid. In Wendi’s most recent blog, she poses questions that relate to her family and how she sourced information to assist in her decision making process.


We’re perusing extensive lists of school supplies and scheduling all the end-of-summer appointments with pediatricians, dentists and optometrists. We’re checking closets to see what still fits and what is getting passed down to younger siblings. We’re getting hourly notifications about “Back to school” sales and trying to figure out why we need to buy new backpacks when there are six perfectly good ones in the house. It’s here somehow; back to school is upon us already. In what seems like the blink of an eye, parents across the county went from adjusting to the abrupt closure of schools and subsequent uneasy transition into e-learning to scrutinizing every detail of local “return to school” plans and laboring over the implications those details might have for the health and education of their children and potentially the financial stability of their family.

For many parents and children, the weeks between late July and early August are usually very busy and filled with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and sometimes anxiety about what the upcoming school year will bring. We are no exception. In the summer of 2016, my family moved into a relatively quiet suburban Chicago neighborhood, which, for my oldest daughters, meant leaving behind friends and starting over at a new school. After moving in, our apprehension was quickly replaced by a sense of immense good fortune as we realized we were surrounded by more wonderful families than one would think possible in such a small area, including dozens of kids who prioritize playing outside with friends over everything else on earth. If I had to choose a defining moment when I truly realized how fortunate we were to have found this neighborhood, I would choose the first day of school, three short months after we moved. Both of my girls were very nervous about their first day, my oldest daughter because she was starting 3rd grade in a place where most of the other kids already knew each other; and my middle daughter because she was going to be kindergartener at “big school”, as she so often called it. The night before school started, I learned our neighborhood has a “first day of school” tradition, wherein all of the elementary school students in the neighborhood meet as a group before school, take pictures together in one or two front yards, and then walk to school together. New and returning students from kindergartners to 5th graders make the 4- block walk to school together as a group while parents, dressed for work and armed with travel mugs full of coffee, follow behind at a safe, un-embarrassing distance. If you’ve ever had or been a child panic stricken over the first day of school, it’s easy to understand how something this simple can transform dread into confidence or a sense of isolation into a sense of belonging. This one simple thing made such an impact on both of my girls, whose faces, heavy with tears the night before, were lit up with smiles all the way to school. Once at school, the girls were led by their neighborhood friends to the correct classroom lines, where all students were greeted by smiling teachers quick to offer encouraging words, give reassuring hugs and wipe away the tears that so often came after a final wave goodbye to mom and dad.

We have made this walk three times between then now and August 2020 will mark the beginning of our fourth school year in the district. In 3 short weeks my oldest daughter will start 7th grade, my middle daughter will start 4th grade, and now it is my youngest daughter’s turn to start kindergarten at “big school”. But it’s 2020, which is a year now infamous for just being all-around a rough year and the story of my youngest daughter’s first day of school will be markedly different than that of both her sisters. There won’t be pictures of big groups of excited students huddled together on front yards. She won’t walk shoulder to shoulder to school with her friends to school. She might not even set foot in the building. If she does there won’t be any hugs or handshakes from her teacher. She’ll have her temperature screened as she walks into a classroom for the first time in her life. She’ll be wearing a mask. She’ll be distanced from her classmates. She’ll have to follow exponentially more rules as a 5-year-old than her sisters ever had to, because she, her sisters and every other student nationwide are about to begin their school year amidst some of the most challenging circumstances parents, students, and teachers can face.

Returning to school amidst the continuing COVID-19 pandemic has kept parents, educators and public health professionals up at night for weeks facing the grim reality that we have some very difficult decisions to make about our children’s health, their education, and possibly our financial stability. Many parents are trying to prioritize these things as we speak. In the past several weeks we have learned that, with COVID-19 cases surging in some states and relenting in others, there is no “one size fits all” solution to returning to school in fall and school districts are daily unveiling and amending plans that are unique to their circumstances. With information developing continuously, in the coming weeks, parents and educators alike must proceed each day with the full understanding that their current return to school plans could be slightly amended or even completely overhauled as COVID-19 transmission rates in their area dictate, and we could very well be back to the drawing board at any moment. This is no simple task considering that to develop safe and effective return to school plans, districts are not only grappling with COVID-19 transmission rates, but also with budget limits, building space issues, staffing concerns, availability of social resources, and in many cases, student food stability to name only a few things. The educational and social needs of each student and family in an individual school vary so drastically that creating a system that works well for everyone is simply not possible.

To date, the return to school plans I am most familiar with include either full time in person-learning, full time remote learning, or a hybrid approach involving both in person and remote learning. Hybrid learning schedules can vary drastically even within a small geographic space, with students attending only in the morning or only in the afternoon, only on certain days of the week, or only every other week in an effort to facilitate social distancing in school buildings. All the approaches, though different, strive to meet the same broad criteria: providing equal access to quality education and school resources to all students while minimizing the spread of COVID-19. Any one of these approaches immediately generates a multitude of questions from parents.

For parents whose students will be back in school buildings they may wonder how is symptom screening and tracing being conducted? How is the building being disinfected? Will there be bus service? What is the protocol if a student or teacher is diagnosed with COVID-19? Parents whose children are on a hybrid schedule may wonder will there be after school care if the students are only attending half days or every other day? If a family has students in two different schools will they be on the same schedule? Parents whose children will be completely remote may wonder is the e-learning curriculum different than the in-person curriculum? Will there be access to school lunches? How will e-learning impact a child who requires academic intervention or social/emotional support? All parents may be wondering what are the benchmarks for altering the policy as new information becomes available? What additional resources are available for parents who have to work full-time? Unfortunately, in a situation that is continually evolving, the questions can and sometimes do outnumber the answers.

The process of sifting through all of the information coming at us was overwhelming for many reasons but mostly because we’re talking about our children, the most precious thing we will ever have, and the fact is because we’ve never been in this position before, there is no data to tell us the best way to get out of it. For me personally, the most difficult part is, in the absence of data, the feeling that any choice I make is a gamble on some level. I know many parents who feel the same. We received the return to school plan for our district two weeks ago. In it were given a choice between two options and we had one week to commit to a decision. My husband and I approached making the decisions for our school children in a series of steps, the first of which was an attempt to be patient with everyone we encountered during this journey. In this particular situation, patience is not a virtue, it is a necessity. When we’re making decisions that will alter daily life as we know it, it’s all too easy to consider only our individual position. We simply can’t do that, because like the COVID support commercials say, “We’re all in this together”. No one is enjoying this. No teacher, student, superintendent, public health professional or parent wants to be here. Our educators are facing the same uncertainties that we as parents are facing and they are not the architects of this unfortunate scenario. Like us all, they are concerned about their own children, their own parents, their own health, and their own financial stability. They are faced with the same tough choices we are, and when we’re making frantic phone calls asking for answers it’s important to be mindful of that.

After my husband and I reviewed the options, we quickly learned we couldn’t make any assumptions because many of our district residents understood the plans a different way. As a result of this, we asked all the questions we had, even the ones where the answers seemed obvious. We posed questions many times to many different people until we were confident that we had all of the information we needed. We have a child with asthma and had concerns about how the new school disinfecting procedures would affect her. I have the good fortune to work in an occupational health and safety firm and count public health scientists among my co-workers, so seeking answers to those concerns was a matter of sharing what I knew and what I didn’t know with one of our senior health scientists. From that discussion I came away with a series of questions and comments that I could pose directly to the school principal and our district superintendent. Without such access to resources, I would have considered contacting the local public health department, a local university science/toxicology department, our family’s primary health care provider or even our local librarian to find answers to my questions. Having children in 2 different schools we had many questions regarding the protocol of allowing students back into school after they had been sick and the protocol in the event there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the building. We directed these questions to our district superintendent and our pediatrician. Having participated in e-learning during the end of the last school year, we had concerns about whether the program could provide as much educational value as in-person learning, especially for our new kindergartner. This question we posed both to teachers at our school, and to my sisters-in-law, who teach in a different district and were able to provide us with new perspective. For my daughter who is near sighted, we can’t seem to locate a mask that won’t fog up her glasses when she breathes. This question I posed to a co-worker who wears glasses. He said I should alert him immediately when I find a solution to this problem. So, on that particular subject my search for answers continues, but I am confident I will prevail.

In the past few weeks I have learned many things about what returning to school may look like this fall. The most valuable thing I have learned is the fact that if we are feeling overwhelmed by the weight of this, there are many people in our communities who can and will help, whether it’s through providing resources, information or just encouragement. Even armed with all of the information we felt we needed to arrive at a decision, actually making the decision was still a difficult process riddled with second guesses. This leads me to the final part of our process, which was to be respectful of the choices made by other parents in our community and lean on them for support. Whether we decided on full time in person learning, e-learning, homeschooling, or we weren’t given any options at all, none of us were wrong. Some of the most valuable and reassuring conversations I have had about returning to school have been with the other parents in our district. While we may not all have made the same choice, that doesn’t make us any less a team and I am hopeful that if everyone in our communities can continue to approach the upcoming year with a team mentality, realizing we all have the common goal of stopping the spread of COVID-19, and take the appropriate steps to work toward that goal, the first day of school next year will look more like it should. We’ll get another chance to take those group pictures with our friends, make that walk to school with our neighbors and likely have a renewed sense of appreciation for our ability to be surrounded by the people we love.