Parents in ‘limbo’ as schools close, return to virtual learning amid COVID-19 surge

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(NEW YORK) — As schools returned from winter break this week amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, more did so virtually than at any point so far this school year.

The third school year during the pandemic had largely seen limited disruptions to in-person learning.

But this week, there have been over 4,500 temporary school closures across the country, according to Burbio, a company that monitors COVID-19 policies in over 80,000 K-12 schools. That’s the highest number it has tracked so far this school year; most weeks, there have been hundreds, not thousands, of closures.

The prospect of a return to virtual learning, on a short- or long-term basis has some parents around the country concerned about the challenges of remote education and unpredictable childcare after great lengths were taken to keep kids in the classroom. For many, the move was abrupt, and issues faced in previous iterations of remote learning have not been solved.

By the same token, advocates say some parents feel the opposite, applauding the move temporarily to keep schools open in the long run. Others say they would like to return to virtual learning for safety reasons, but simply don’t have the option. And of course, there are the teachers and staff in the middle of the process, with their safety and education concerns as well.

‘One of the last things we do’

Some parents who have found their schools temporarily closed have voiced frustration and disappointment in returning to virtual learning.

“Closing schools I think should be one of the last things we do, not the first thing we do when COVID cases go up,” Amanda, a mother of two in Maryland who asked that her last name not be printed to protect her family’s privacy, told ABC News.

Amanda’s elementary school-aged sons attend Prince George’s County Public Schools, where officials announced on Dec. 17 that the district would be going virtual for several days before the winter break and for another two weeks upon their return after a “stark rise” in school COVID-19 cases “significantly challenged” its ability to deliver in-person instruction safely.

Her sons, who had hoped being vaccinated would mean fewer disruptions, are “devastated” at going virtual, she said. She and her husband work full-time and find it challenging to help their kindergartener navigate Zoom. Their third-grader manages better independently with virtual learning but is “miserable” online, she said.

“My oldest hated virtual school last year. Every morning, it’s just a fight,” she said. “He’s lost so much of the joy of school having to be remote for so long.”

The temporary closures have left some parents wondering if remote learning may be extended or returned to in the future, and what metric that would be based on.

Without pandemic financial protections

Without the same flexibility and expanded financial assistance as offered earlier in the pandemic, they’re also not sure how they can manage childcare while still working.

After losing her job due to the pandemic, Erin Wisniewski told ABC News she was able to stay afloat thanks to enhanced unemployment benefits while also being home for remote schooling. She’s been back at work while her fourth-grader and kindergartner have also been back in person at the Bayonne School District in Hudson County, New Jersey, this school year.

When the district went remote this week due to high community transmission, she was able to have a friend watch her daughters. But she is worried about scrambling to make arrangements should the need arise again.

“If this is going to be for the next couple of months, it’s going to be like, what bill am I not going to be able to pay this month so I can pay the babysitter to keep my kids in school,” Wisniewski said.

The district told families Wednesday that it plans to return to in-person instruction this Monday, with the new option for continued remote learning “due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

When he got a call that his daughter would be remote this week, John, who has a fifth-grader in the Union City School District in Hudson County, “I was beside myself,” he told ABC News. To him, it seemed schools would do whatever it took to remain open safely this year.

“That was the attitude in September and all of a sudden now we’re virtual again?” the father, who asked that his last name not be printed to protect his privacy, told ABC News. “That’s what really upset me.”

He said his daughter, who has ADHD, gets distracted and it’s difficult for him to arrange time to work remotely himself. After a few days remote she was having “flashbacks” to remote learning last year.

“Remote schooling does not work for her,” he said. “It’s not as engaging as being surrounded by other kids who are also learning.”

‘Smartest thing to do’

Most school districts in Hudson County have gone virtual this week amid record COVID-19 cases in the state, fueled in part by the highly transmissible omicron variant. Lisa Milan, who has a seventh-grader in the Bayonne school district, thinks the move will help keep schools open in the long term.

“If they really don’t want to be forced to shut down schools completely because of sick teachers, sick staff, sick kids, I think going remote is the smartest thing to do to keep the majority of people safer,” she said. “If you limit the interactions, obviously, you’re quelling this incredible spread that this variant seems to have.”

As daily COVID-19 cases in the state have exploded in the past month, regularly surpassing 20,000 daily, her own family has been impacted during the surge. Milan said her son tested positive for COVID-19 a few days before Christmas, and her husband a few days after him. Both breakthrough cases were very mild.

“I’m grateful for that,” she said. “We still have to worry about people who are older or immunocompromised, or teachers or staff and certainly kids who are immunocompromised.”

As founder of the Chicago-based community Hustle Mommies, Ariel DeNey Rainey has lately been hearing from mothers worried about their children bringing COVID home to those with pre-existing health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

“People are catching it left and right,” she said. “Moms are worried about their kids’ health, but also are faced with, if my kids are home, where can they go?”

One of the latest districts to close is among the largest in the country. Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for hundreds of thousands of students Wednesday after reaching an impasse Tuesday night with the city’s teachers union over whether in-person learning was safe.

COVID-19 case rates in Chicago have reached record levels. The seven-day daily case average in the city jumped from just over 800 at the beginning of December to over 5,000 by the end of the month, according to city data. City officials have said transmission has been low in schools, though cases started to tick up in recent weeks.

As school districts have had to contend with a rapidly evolving situation, considering health concerns and staffing shortages, decisions to go virtual in some cases were made days before the return from winter break, leaving parents in “limbo,” Bernita Bradley, the Midwest delegate for the National Parents Union, an education advocacy group, told ABC News. Parents who want to go virtual may not have the option to, leaving them in a difficult spot too, she said.

“Right now parents are really scrambling and they’re upset,” she said. “They’re confused because the schools are not really providing what their kids need when it comes down to both options.”

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