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With a new school year looming, parents have no idea what to do

Parents and teachers have to make decisions, but have no answers: "It feels like an impossible choice."
School Doom LEAD
Jenny Chang-Rodriguez/TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

A new school year will begin in a little over a month in many parts of the country, and parents and teachers have more questions than answers.

What will school look like? Will it be safe? Will students and teachers be able to return to their school buildings? Should they?

Most reopening plans — like those just announced in Hillsborough County, Florida — include options for face-to-face, virtual or a hybrid of the two models of teaching, with the primary goal of returning to face-to-face teaching. Others like Fairfax County, Virginia, are offering parents a choice between in-person or virtual options for school this fall.

As COVID-19 numbers spike in states like Texas, Florida, and Arizona, some parents are eager to send their kids back to their friends and familiar surroundings while others are worried.

"I have literally no idea what to do," Atlanta-area mom Miranda Wicker told TODAY Parents. "Our school district is taking parent input on three separate options, and we have to decide by July 17th — two and a half weeks ahead of our usual first of August start date — whether we want to send them to school online."

Atlanta-area mom Miranda Wicker is debating whether to send her 8-year-old daughter back to school if Georgia schools reopen at the beginning of August or to continue school on a virtual platform for safety's sake.Miranda Wicker / Miranda Wicker

Wicker has risk factors that make her especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Her children are 11 and 8 years old.

"I'm not entirely convinced we have the full picture of how things are going in Georgia, and without adequate information, deciding whether to send them to school each day like normal or keep them home for more involved digital learning feels like an impossible choice," she said.

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"Can my kids touch the 5,000 books I have lovingly collected for them? Can we use chrome books? Who is getting me Clorox wipes, since I can’t find any? So many questions."

Parents aren't the only ones with reservations. Marjorie Soffer, a 25-year veteran teacher in Boynton Beach, Florida, who also has two children of her own, said no matter how much she misses her students, the logistics of returning "terrifies" her.

"I teach 115 sixth graders. They each are in contact with hundreds of others all day. How are we doing this safely?" she said.

"I don’t have the physical space in my room to do it. I have tables, not desks. Can my kids touch the 5,000 books I have lovingly collected for them? Can we use chrome books? Who is getting me Clorox wipes, since I can’t find any? So many questions."

Soffer is on a task force preparing for the reopening at her school, but she said there are still so many questions that her principal can't answer.

"The hybrid model can’t work for teachers' kids," she said. "How do they work four days and their kids only go to school two days on campus? My kids are old enough to stay alone, but many are not."

If their students come back to school, Soffer said teachers are wondering how they will find subs to cover for them if someone gets sick. "When we can’t find subs, we normally split classes, but if you’re doing social distancing and reduced class sizes, you can’t do that," she said.

"And let’s say I do get sick. Do all 115 of my students have to quarantine? Do my own two children have to quarantine? Do all of their friends have to quarantine?" she added.

Marjorie Soffer is trying to weigh the options for both herself and her children, ages 12 and 9, for the school year starting in August in Florida. Over the summer, her kids have enjoyed Zoom cooking camp and other activities from a distance.Marjorie Soffer / Marjorie Soffer

Dr. Erika Petersen, a neurosurgeon in Little Rock, Arkansas, told TODAY Parents that sending her child back to school could risk her ability to do her job.

"One of my worries is that if my child is exposed to a positive child, then my son, my husband and I all have to quarantine for 14 days as part of the contact tracing and quarantine public health program," she said. "An immediate and unexpected absence from work for 14 days is not ideal, to say the least."

For other families, the need to get children back in school outweighs their concerns about COVID-19, especially for households with two parents working outside the home.

"I’m scared to send her back, but she’ll be OK," said Atlanta, Georgia, mom Leslie Tyrone of her 10-year-old daughter. "The lost socialization and maturation that happens in the school setting is the bigger long-term risk in my opinion."

Tyrone said her daughter misses her school community.

"She thrives in team sports, which she cannot do now, she misses her friends despite all we’ve done to connect her with them virtually, and her sleep-away camp is closed," she said. "We're worried about her mental health as a result of hanging with two working parents all day."

"I want my son to go back," agreed Meredith Turnage of Longwood, Florida, who has a son in high school. "He needs in-class instruction and socialization. He did not enjoy doing the mounds of work each day at home. I feel his school will provide the healthiest option possible."

Turnage is an elementary school teacher. "I will be going back to work in person if allowed. The kids need us," she said. "Their growth as learners is important. I don’t think the last two months of school my students learned very much, even though I tried my best. If we have to go back to distance learning, it is what it is, but I don’t think it’s best for their education or mental health."

Andrew Potter, a first grade teacher at Excelsior Elementary School in Excelsior, Minnesota, feels similarly about his students, but has concerns. He worries about the risk for everyone at school, from teachers to older support staff, as well as the families at home.

"We’re all part of a community," he said. "I’m not willing to put their lives at risk just to get all the kids back in the building."