Inside the decision-making turmoil: For parents and school administrators, there’s no easy answers

Published: Jul. 21, 2020 at 8:23 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - It’s several weeks yet before school kicks off in the Tomorrow Rivers School District, a school district of about 1,000 students in Portage County, but Tricia Dombrowski’s son will likely stay at home when it does. An 11-month-old baby and Tricia’s mother with asthma run the risk of serious health issues if he unwittingly contracts COVID-19.

“[The baby] has been pretty sick since she was born,” Tricia said. “Pneumonia, bronchiolitis, RSV.”

Her son’s safety—and through him the family—is her top concern. But as a single mother, her full-time job and night classes for nursing means there will be very little about the school year that’s easy for her. Plus, she fears for the emotional impacts on her son and the small, tightly-knit community if the pandemic were to take a life in the school district, or leave a child with long-lasting repercussions in the wake of a virus whose long-term impacts are largely unknown.

A story echoed by several parents 7 Investigates spoke to for this story, the juggling of jobs, family safety, and virtual learning presents the perfect storm of complications as families decide whether to opt into virtual learning or send children back to school--if that option is available. And where families depend on single incomes or inflexible jobs that can’t be done remotely, virtual options can become less realistic even when safety remains a concern, or if in-person learning isn’t implemented. In rural districts already burdened by frequently-insufficient access to high-speed internet for virtual learning, the income burden for families could become particularly relevant where fewer jobs or opportunities to switch to more flexible industries are less available.

“Within a larger community, there may be additional opportunities to pick up different types of employment or part time employment, and some of these opportunities are just not present in rural communities,” Craig Albers said, co-director of UW-Madison’s Rural Education Research and Implementation Center (RERIC) and an expert in education psychology. “We’ve had conversations with [rural school districts], and there’s also a significant concern in regards to families who really will struggle if their kids are not able to go to school.”

Jobs aren’t the only stress points for parents; others 7 Investigates spoke to are primarily concerned with a return to normalcy for their children as they wait to see whether their school districts plan a physical return in the fall.

“I have a daughter that’s a senior this year,” Shannon OHearn, a parent in the Wausau School District, explained. He says his daughter’s motivation suffered last semester after virtual learning prompted a shift to pass/fail grading. “‘It’s much harder to learn online than have an in-person, in-class instruction.”

Shannon says he supports extra safety precautions, but believes the WSD—which hasn’t yet finalized their plans—should have a return to the physical classroom.

“All the kids really want to get back in school,” he said. “It will help ease a lot of the anxiety especially that kids are facing.”

Experts say much is at stake for students’ emotional and social well-being, during a pandemic that has damaged both for many.

“There is significant concern about what students are losing if they are not in the classroom with their peers,” Albers said. “Kids are resilient. They, for the most part, will adapt. But it still doesn’t make it any easier to think about what our children are missing out on.”

School districts across north central Wisconsin are frequently resorting to staff and parent surveys to gauge the community’s preferences for the fall, and many support physical returns with precautions. So far, with major school districts like Stevens Point and D.C. Everest announcing hybrid models and physical returns, districts are differing from their counterparts in the southern part of the state where large districts like Madison and Milwaukee are planning on semesters to kick off virtually. For the local school administrators largely tasked with the job of creating plans balancing key concerns, safety and academic well-being, the decisions are no easier and the days are filled with research, meetings...and more research.

“You may make a really good decision based on the information you have at that moment, but then two hours later something changes,” D.C. Everest superintendent Dr. Kristine Gilmore said. “It’s non-stop trying to keep up with the changes.”

Her 6,000-student district announced its in-person return with hybrid learning and a virtual option last week, but the shifting baseline of data is an ongoing battle as detailed decisions about mask-wearing, food, and transportation await. Next door at the Wausau School District, pupil services director and pandemic response coordinator Angela Lloyd isn’t sleeping much as the district continues to evaluate potential plans (the school board is set to consider their plan next week).

“I spend hours and hours and hours long into the night every single day, reading the research, listening to webinars, listening to legal webinars, just to be able to get enough information to make informed decisions.”

She chuckles when asked what keeps her up at night—”How did you know?”—before turning serious again.

“Concern for our staff and students,” she said, “If we come back to school in the fall without a vaccination being in place.” Very little is set in stone yet, she says, including mask-wearing, in-person schooling, and how to practice CDC guidelines in a school environment.

“If we were to open fully, there’s no way to do social distancing,” she said, but adds that parents teaching their children those health precautions now so their staff doesn’t have to will be a huge help in the fall. The WSD virtual schooling option, WAVE, had more than 40 enrollments as of the end of last week, which Lloyd says is higher than normal.

Legal liability remains another issue of concern. School administrators pushed for measures of legal immunity against lawsuits in an Assembly education committee hearing a few weeks ago, as school districts hope for state and federal protections against potential lawsuits if students contract COVID-19 in the classroom. Dr. Gilmore says she’s hoping for protections that account for districts offering schooling choices to parents, giving parents the responsibility to choose the method of instruction they find most safe.

Ultimately, there isn’t much set in stone that isn’t subject to change if the pandemic balloons beyond current spread in rural Wisconsin.

“Parents just want to know what the Fall is going to look like,” Lloyd reflected. “We do, too.”

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