What do Pittsburgh-area students think about the proposed back-to-school plans amid coronavirus?

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From left to right: Students Katie Marie, Davey, Eli and Emma. (Courtesy photos)

From left to right: Students Katie Marie, Davey, Eli and Emma. (Courtesy photos)

If you’re a parent of school-aged kids during the pandemic summer, all you may be thinking about is school. I know it’s on my mind constantly.

The topic is inescapable as districts across the region roll out their reopening plans, and parents dissect these plans on social media. Parents are trying to wrap their heads around how they will work while helping their kids complete distance learning, or processing just what schools will look like if our kids do go in person.

School is much more than a place to learn; for many families, it is child care; it is a place for steady meals; and it is the access point through which their children receive mental health services. I, like my parents, am worried about so many yet-unanswered questions. Can kids wear masks all day? Can they do without recess? Can they effectively practice social distancing in their classrooms? 

Amid all the chatter and worry, my three school-aged children reminded me recently that no one has actually asked them what they think about all the presented scenarios. I will have two first-graders and a third-grader this fall, as well as a toddler at home with me. My third-grader desperately wants to attend school but what he longs for is the version of school he left March 12. That version of school will not exist this fall. 

He pushed back against the adult notion to talk about big decisions without his input. “I feel better if you just let me know what’s going on. Let me watch the news, ask me what I think!” We sat down and watched the virtual school board meeting together and processed together all the various scenarios the board presented. I noticed his anxiety ebb after he was given a chance to understand all the considerations for fall. We didn’t get answers that night, but he was part of the process. 

Yes, parenting is about making decisions that we feel are in the best interest of our children — even if those decisions make them unhappy at times. Yet for many children, their world revolves around school and few adults have given them the chance to provide any input on this new situation. 

I spoke to some Pittsburgh-area elementary students about their thoughts on the 2020-2021 school year. 

Eli, 9, fourth grade, Quaker Valley School District

Eli has thought a great deal about school in the fall and shared about how he’s looked at the situation from all angles. “It’s a 50/50 chance they are going to open or not, actually more chance that they aren’t going to open, because this is a really big virus and if one person gets it, a lot of people are going to have it.”

In his third-grade classroom at Quaker Valley last school year, Eli enjoyed time with friends and his teachers’ ability to help him in a hands-on manner. He felt the instruction in the spring left him hanging most of the time, and that he did not learn as much as he should have in third grade. “If you're at school, you'll get the teachers telling you A, B, C and D, but online school, it just goes to A, B and C. ...You get caught up on things faster than with online school.” 

He does have worries about attending school in person. He felt safe from the virus when learning at home. “So, like, I am worried about lunch and recess because if one person uses the playground and you never know who has [COVID-19], so if one person that maybe does have it goes on like the monkey bars, and you go on the monkey bars, you're most likely to have it. I am worried about having to wear a mask. Well, because inside maybe some schools might be hot and hard to breathe sometimes, so if you are wearing a mask, it will probably make it harder.” 

Eli thinks that if students stay home, they won’t learn as much, but he is fearful of bringing the virus home to his family. “I am kinda stuck between both choices because if we are at home, we aren't going to catch up on things, but if we are at school, somebody might have the virus. Then I go on the bus, people have it, and then I come out, and then I go to my house. Then my family is going to have it, then all their families are gonna have it and then that's such a bigger spread.”

Katie Marie, 9, third grade, Highlands School District

Katie Marie and her two younger siblings are starting a new school this fall. When they will actually attend their new school in person remains to be seen. The Highlands School District is offering a hybrid remote and in-person plan as well as an all-remote plan.  Her parents have been open and honest with her about the choices adults are discussing. She knows she might go to school some days and do distance learning other days, but also shares that adults are still working out all the details. 

Katie Marie (left) with her siblings Devin and Sarene. (Courtesy photo)

If given the choice, she would choose distance learning at this time. “I don’t want to spread germs around the school. I am scared of getting sick because I could die from coronavirus if I get it. I am scared of the rules. Because of the coronavirus, the rules will just get longer, like washing our hands every time we touch something.” She is not worried about wearing a mask. 

She does wish she could go to her new school in person and get to work on making new friends. She also loves learning. In the spring, it was hard for their entire family. “My mom and dad are not teachers, and they also have to work, so most of the time we had to figure it out ourselves.” Some benefits to distance learning in the spring for Katie Marie included not having to wake up early, more time with her family and “getting to stay in the same clothes all day long.” 

Davey, 9, fourth grade, Pittsburgh Public Schools

Davey has heard his parents talking about the return to school and really hopes he gets to go back. He knows there are a lot of decisions to be made still. Right now, he thinks the plan is that they might have to go back to school with masks on for a few days, then spend a few days learning on the computer. “I’ve heard the adults talking about it. If it was my choice, I would choose to go back to school instead of packets. ...I am kind of worried about the extra rules. I didn’t really think about that until you asked me.” Davey, like many kids his age, struggles to wear a mask. His parents know that it is important to slow community spread of COVID-19, so they are working with him on tolerance while acknowledging that it is a big adjustment. 

Davey has a lot weighing on his mind for the fall, but he does not have much anxiety about the virus itself. “I am not really worried about getting sick.” 

He hated distance learning in the spring and missed the school environment. He shared that the packets provided by the Pittsburgh district were more work than they would do in a typical school day and felt like busy work as opposed to learning. “The packets were pretty bad,” he said.

Davey is skeptical that the fall would be much different, despite the district communicating to his parents and others that they have had time to work out the kinks. Davey and his family used the packets in their summer campfires to commemorate the end of distance learning for the spring. 

Emma, 11, sixth grade, Northgate School District

Embarking on her last year of elementary school, Emma has been thoughtfully processing the many possibilities for the fall. Her dad is on the district’s school board, so she knows he is part of the decision-making process as well. She described the potential hybrid model being considered by the Northgate district, in which schools would be partially open to smaller groups of kids on a rotating schedule. The time to clean in between groups of kids is important, she said. 

“If it was my choice, I would say everyone would still have to wear masks because of the whole coronavirus thing. In a perfect world, I would have it how it normally would be, but very clean so nothing like this ever happens again. I am worried that if someone gets a tiny cold, everyone will just have to not go to school.” She misses human interaction, and really misses having the teacher explain things to her rather than her parents. She felt a lot of frustration in the spring when components of distance learning failed to work, such as when most of her English class could not log into their online language arts program.

There were some nice things about distance learning that she wouldn’t mind continuing in the fall, though. She could sleep in and there were fewer distractions while she was working than in a busy classroom. Still, she’d like to resume in-person schooling. “I want to go back. I know some people won't tolerate the masks or wear them the right way, but as long as people follow the rules I don’t think there is a high chance of getting the virus in school.” 

Each school district in Pennsylvania is developing independent reopening plans, while adhering to guidelines set by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s broader plan to reopen Pennsylvania. Should COVID-19 numbers continue to rise, there is the possibility that the governor will override each district’s plans and issue a statewide mandate regarding schools. Many Southwestern Pennsylvania school districts have approved preliminary plans for the fall, but several officials warn that the plans could rapidly change. Continue to follow PublicSource’s education updates for our ongoing reporting. 

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance journalist based in Bellevue. She can be reached at megstesprit@gmail.com or on Twitter @megstesprit.

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