Looking at pictures of children in Georgia setting out for their first day of school this week really hit home for me. This is real. It’s decision time. As both a mother of four and an educator here in New Jersey, I understand the angst on both sides of the back-to-school or stay home debate, especially as August brings the start of classes that much closer. It’s not an easy call. What are the best options for parents today?

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Gauging what’s best vs. what’s safest

My own children range in age from 10 to 14, so this year, once again, they’re all in different schools: elementary, middle and high school. What’s more is they all have very different needs and learning styles. That makes me wonder—and lose sleep at night—about whether the same plan will work for each of them. What will we sacrifice this year?

My daughter is motivated and independent, so I know that she could still thrive in a fully online learning environment. She’s the child who wants to start her summer homework in June, probably the day after classes end. Her twin brother, on the other hand, doesn’t want to think about school until he’s standing at the bus stop again on a cloudy September morn. And don’t even mention school supplies to him until late August. So, online teaching doesn’t exactly resonate for him as a student who’s a tad bit less engaged. But if we had to, we’d make it work. And the same goes for the others.

A new kind of school choice

Yet, the concern I have as a parent is whether what works best for him, in-person teaching, is really worth the risk. While some districts have opted for solely remote teaching for fall, ours has given parents a choice. We can go fully online, or choose the in-class option(s). I should also mention that my children are enrolled in a range of school choices, from public to charter to private (different means for different needs). That means even our individual in-school options are different.

For example, one school system is offering a Monday-Thursday schedule every other week. Another is offering core classes Monday-Friday until 1:30 p.m. every week, with specials taught online. And the last seems like a hybrid model of regular classes with more details to come. It’s a lot to consider and digest. And it’s a pretty stressful process with the “what if’s” making each decision even more grueling than the last. Across the country, Coronavirus cases are spiking in certain areas. In our case, while the numbers in New Jersey are slightly spiking, we have at least flattened the curve. Once second to New York in numbers, today, we’re no longer in the top five. That’s a major factor for any parent to consider. But there’s also more.

In our case, since the schools have made it clear that it’s much easier to switch from in-person (already assigned a pod) to remote instruction, we are leaning in that direction. But believe me, nothing is set in stone. We haven’t fully committed to anything emotionally. We just want to have the best option in place for each child. What parent doesn’t, right?

Now, I have friends who say that online learning is the only viable option, others who’ve chosen homeschooling over public school schedules, and still others with stressful work lives who rely on in-class instruction to keep their children safe and engaged during the day. None of them are wrong, nor should they feel guilty about the choices they have to make. It’s a deeply personal choice.

Educators making hard choices, too

Yet, as an educator, I know there’s a flip side to this. First, if I actually decide to send any of my children to school, that means that I am requiring that a teacher be there to instruct them. That responsibility comes with a lot of pressure and not a little guilt. It’s almost as if I’m forcing someone’s hand. And I don’t think anyone should be forced to teach, regardless. It feels more like a community decision, at least in the best case scenario.

It’s rough when I see teachers posting on social media about possibly revising their wills, contemplating all of the scenarios that could develop if something goes wrong. Who’s quarantined if a student or teacher is diagnosed with COVID-19, for how long, and what happens with their families at home? It’s more information than we should have to process over one short summer.

There’s also the very personal side of this for me as one who also teaches. I teach young adults at a small state college, so I’m given a little more say in what my schedule will look like for fall. Right now, our schedules are still being approved, so I can’t go into detail, but the number of scenarios we were presented with initially made my head spin. 

There was the idea of teaching outside (at least until it gets cold), or using a hybrid model of in-person and online class meetings inside, and everything in between. I know I changed my schedule in theory multiple times before finally coming to a decision. But, fortunately, due to the results of a task force and lots of community input, the options have been streamlined, and our choices are much clearer. Our first and foremost concern is always for our students and their best possible outcomes.

In the end, those of us who teach feel as much in the dark as parents and students these days. That’s because, ultimately, the bulk of the scheduling decisions depend on whether we stay in Phase 2 or move on to Phase 3, according to the State’s reopening plan. That’s a factor that is completely out of our hands. There’s just so much to consider.

Our first test, summer session for one 

On a personal note, my husband and I had a taste of what fall might look like when we opted for in-person summer classes for one of our four. Originally, the school was only offering a remote option, but when the Governor’s office announced that camp and summer classes were a go for July, the school added an in-school session. 

We decided to cautiously give it a try, with the understanding that the population would be much smaller and major safety precautions were being taken. We even previewed the class models online with social distancing measures in place. And it’s actually been a fairly smooth process so far, considering the circumstances. 

When he’s dropped off in the a.m., mask on, he walks up to an open covered area where he uses hand sanitizer and has a temperature check done by the nurse. Overall, everyone is pretty well spaced out throughout the day. Students are kept in one classroom for both classes, and teachers change rooms, so that there’s less passing in the hallways. They also eat lunch at their desks instead of going to the cafeteria. We prefer to send his lunch and drinks, although the school does provide lunch as well. Our son hasn’t had any complaints.

Now, we know that this is just a tiny example, a small composite of what the school year will really look like. And no parent wants his/her children to be guinea pigs as schools and medical experts figure this whole thing out. This is new to all of us. But one thing’s for sure: no one has all the answers. 

So, parent to parent, my best advice to you is to just go with what feels right for your family, knowing that you can change your plan later. And, in the meantime, remember to stay informed, rev up your immune systems and stay safe. When all is said and done, we all want what’s best for our children. That’s what unites us. Let’s make a commitment to support each other, whatever anyone decides, because we’re in this together. Share your thoughts or plans in the comments.

Regina Cash-Clark is a wife and mother of four (twins plus two) who lives in Somerset, Franklin Township. She teaches writing as a full-time faculty member at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

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