Balancing Act: As the coronavirus rages, families are left to decide how — not whether — it will affect their kids' right to an education

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Parents are looking for alternative to remote learning for their kids. - Dreamstime/TNS/TNS

Friday is decision day for Chicago Public Schools families.

With a bare-bones understanding of the two options, parents and guardians are instructed to opt into one of two learning models for the first quarter: a hybrid model that has most students clustered into small pods in school buildings two days per week and learning remotely the other three days, or 100% remote learning that has them … 100% remote learning. We don’t have any more details about the second model — last we heard they’ll arrive “soon.”

I spent the weekend, like so many families, reading everything I could get my hands on to help me decide what to choose for my soon-to-be sixth-grader and soon-to-be high school freshman.

I read about the summer camp in Georgia where 244 campers and staff tested positive for the coronavirus. I read about the outbreaks at the University of Southern California and Bradley University.

I read the Arizona school superintendent’s gut-wrenching account of weighing the safety of his staff and students against the governor’s order to open his building by Aug. 17. One of his teachers has already died from COVID-19. “Do I risk opening back up even if it’s going to cost us more lives?” he writes. “Or do we run school remotely and end up depriving these kids?”

I read that a junior high school in Indiana had to quarantine students within hours of reopening because a student tested positive on the first day of school.

Early Monday, I read the Atlantic essay, “How the pandemic defeated America,” and felt my stomach clench at this line: “One study showed that the odds of catching the virus from an infected person are roughly 19 times higher indoors than in open air.”

And yet.

Remote learning in the spring was an unmitigated disaster, particularly for my son. I’m watching loneliness and despair and hopeless resignation settle onto my kids’ young shoulders the longer they go without the familiarity and stimulation and spontaneous, unscripted, face-to-face laughter and learning and mind-opening and inspiration that happen in their classrooms and hallways.

Would two days per week, wearing masks, while socially distanced and clustered in small groups, be so bad?

(The Georgia campers weren’t wearing masks! Then again, will my son and his 11-year-old peers leave masks on all day? Even during recess? How about the second graders they’ll share the halls with? Can spontaneous, unscripted, face-to-face laughter and learning and mind-opening and inspiration even happen in socially distanced pods? Will the potential virus-related anxiety and fear, teasing and bullying overshadow any potential upside of returning to classrooms?)

“This is really one of the most perplexing and complex issues I’ve ever faced in 40 years,” Dan M. Cooper, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, said in yet another article I read this weekend: “Why is there no consensus about reopening schools? Too many variables, too few studies.”

Of all the sentences I read on this topic, Cooper’s is the one that landed like a life preserver.

Families have been handed a colossal mess: While other wealthy countries around the globe flattened their curves before reopening schools, the United States is continuing to see spikes in new cases and deaths. But instead of federal funds and guidance to improve remote learning as cases soar, school leaders have received demands from Washington, D.C., to reopen buildings — and threats to their funding if they don’t.

Instead of a national, comprehensive program to keep employers and employees safe — economically and physically — while the virus rages, parents are being rushed back to work and desperately searching for a safe place to send their kids.

Schools are trying to provide options and answers for families with a million different needs, against a public health backdrop that shifts by the day. Which leaves families to choose from a collection of unsatisfactory options, all of which carry tremendous, unknowable risk.

No wonder that Holderness family video — in which a parent ponders the back-to-school question — has been viewed 8.6 million times and shared 97,000. Who among us hasn’t been tempted to pull the FedEx driver aside and get his thoughts on the hybrid model? (The Holderness family makes podcasts and songs and videos about life’s absurdities and posts them on Facebook and Instagram.)

Some CPS families have already arrived at their decisions. I spoke with them all weekend — at an outdoor, masked-up Friday night birthday party; during a Sunday morning group bike ride along the lake; in heated group texts. I’m still waffling, although I’m leaning heavily toward 100% remote, at least for the first quarter.

But I find myself clinging to the voices like Cooper’s, who remind us that if we’re lacking certitude, it’s because the circumstances and risks and unknowns are horrendously complex and likely to grow more so. I find the willingness to weigh both sides — and settle squarely on neither — oddly comforting right now.

Maybe it’s because I fear these decisions, when put in place, will pit families against families, families against educators, and stakeholders against stakeholders. Maybe it’s because I worry we’re forgetting how to band together in search of solutions, both short- and long-term. Maybe it’s because I can’t make up my mind, and I want to feel less crazy.

We can arm ourselves with as much information as we can find. We can factor in our kids’ unique needs and our families’ unique circumstances. We can trust our guts.

But we can also seek out the voices who remind us that we’ve been given a false choice, that if an easy answer isn’t occurring to us, it’s because an easy answer doesn’t exist. This virus is tearing through our nation on a ferocious path, helped along by the absence of any sort of national plan to contain it.

And now it’s time to figure out how — not whether — that will impact our kids’ ability to access their right to an education. Perplexing, indeed. Along with infuriating and terrifying.

And the countdown to Friday continues.

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(Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)

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