By Melissa Henriquez
If you’ve been on social media even once in the past few weeks, you know about the heated back-to-school debate. It’s one of the many truisms of the internet: No matter what parents do, it will never be good enough.
As coronavirus cases continue to rise, school districts are offering varying plans for the fall. Some are planning for in-person instruction; some will be online-only; others are aiming for a hybrid of both.
At this point, parents have a gazillion questions and precious few answers. Our lack of understanding of the novel coronavirus — combined with heightened emotions — has seeded an all-out hate-fest among parents. That’s particularly true among moms, who are, more often than not, tasked with overseeing their children’s education.
But we’re making it even worse by shaming one another for whichever decision they make. Some examples I’ve seen floating about in the comments sections of social media: If you plan to send your kids to school, you must “hate teachers” and “not care about their/your children’s safety/health/well-being.” But if you plan to keep your kids at home, you’re a “sheep” and “living in fear” or “you must have the luxury of not needing to work.”
Of course, none of these are true — parents are just trying to get through this crazy time and do what we can to survive.
There are countless articles and no clear answers. There are logical and rational and science-based articles saying it’s better to send kids back than not because the benefits outweigh the risks, and logical and rational and science-based articles saying it would be a catastrophe to send kids back and that the risks outweigh the benefits. “It’s a no-win scenario,” as my dad likes to say.
Every parent is struggling to do what’s right. But now that COVID-19 has become so politicized, parents are throwing barbs at one another instead of supporting those who may not be able to make the same decisions.
As in so many other arenas, those with money to spare have additional options, including hiring private teachers or forming exclusive “pandemic pods.” Some are looking at Jewish day schools or secular private schools as new alternatives. Some are choosing to home school.
But for those kids planning to stay within the public school system, like mine, there really are no good options.
Here in Texas, our school year is slated to start Aug. 19. Our district is offering two options for elementary-aged kids: in-person or virtual learning. Parents have to submit their decision this week — and if our local mom groups on Facebook are any indication, any decision is going to be the “wrong” one. Talk about Jewish guilt!
My husband and I both work full-time, and our kids are going into fourth and first grade. Juggling work and remote learning was a real challenge for us. The arrangement was semi-functional but not sustainable.
I’m anxious when I think about how the choice to send our kids back to school as “guinea pigs” or “part of some social experiment” will be judged. As sick as it made me to read these phrases online, I know they aren’t necessarily untrue — so much is unknown about this virus. But also, I feel helpless, because I see no other option. I love my job and I am an equal contributor to our family income.
Adding insult to injury, I’ve seen posts and articles about how parents like me who are “choosing” to send their kids back are “killing teachers.” I’ve read about teachers fearfully drafting wills or considering retiring early or leaving the field. It’s all devastating.
In our community, we are fortunate that teachers have the choice to apply for a virtual position or remain in the classroom; no one is being “forced” to go back. From what I am hearing, the overwhelming majority of teachers and staff are eager to go back to school with all the new precautions in place — which gives me some comfort. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about the risks they face.
The shaming comments break my heart. I hate to think that parents who work and need our kids to learn from actual educators are at the root of their collective anxiety … but that very well may be the case, and that’s an enormous burden to bear.
Schools cannot promise us they are safe, no matter how many precautions they take. Will the precautions be enough? Will my first-grader be able to keep a mask on his face? (He better!) What if school has to shut because someone contracts the virus?
While distance learning may be what a family needs to do, it simply did not work for many families. Many students across the country don’t have access to the internet. If we have to continue on this path, I worry: Will my kids and others fall behind? Will I have to quit my job in order to help teach them? How will our kids socialize? What if what if what if?
Sadly, instead of seeing parents support each other, there is hate lobbed back and forth. So what is a concerned parent to do?
Don’t read any comments section if you don’t want your blood to boil, for one. They are a minefield of anger and frustration — all of which is understandable but can be hard to handle.
Be patient with yourself and the roller coaster of emotions you may feel from one day to the next. None of us have lived during a pandemic before.
Be kind to others, and ask questions with empathy. You don’t know what internal battle they’re facing; don’t shame other parents or go all passive-aggressive on them.
Avoid judging others — just because you wouldn’t make the same decision doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Everyone has different circumstances and different reasons for the choices they make.
We are desperate for answers, desperate for a “right decision” — but honestly, there isn’t one. There’s only what works for your family right now.
School will look different this fall. But what we need right now, more than ever, is empathy. My wish is for parents to put down the boxing gloves and agree to be a part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem. It’s going to take a village.
Melissa Henriquez, a New Jersey native, is a contributor at Kveller, where this piece first appeared. It is part of a collaboration between JTA and Kveller about pandemic parenting and school reopenings.