I visited the internet today with the intention of watching movie trailers from my youth and instead I was enlightened and called to action. To that mom out there, thank you. I didn’t see it coming. To say that the internet and social media has become divisive, explosive, and judgmental is an understatement. Nowhere is that more evident then in the raging discussion over children returning to the 2020/2021 school year in the era of COVID-19. 

I can only speak for myself and the school district I live in, but it is clear from my interactions with other parents and my observations of other districts that this is a shared experience. I live in Fort Worth, Texas. I am a middle-aged Gen X father with a daughter in college and a daughter who’ll be a senior in high school this year. I have two sons, one who will be in 8th grade and one who will continue being a toddler. I have an enormous amount to consider and like other parents, I am vacillating between frustration, worry, fear, confusion, and anger. If I turn to the school district for answers, I get few if any, and the answers I get change daily and contain mixed signals. To find answers online I often have to wade through complaints from teachers and support staff who also want answers and are parents themselves. Not to mention they also seem to be in the dark. Most of them are worried like me. I say online because phone calls and emails are out of the question. One thing is clear, the school is offering online learning or in person learning and parents must choose. The district has made it known that once you choose, you are locked in. The first day of school is 3 weeks away. 

Parents that have made their decision are having trouble getting their children registered because the online registration is not working and parents who would like more answers to specific and non-specific questions are being ignored or dismissed. The public is weighing in as well with the most vocal voices being binary and boiled over. The panic crowd is arguing with the anti-panic crowd and as usual those in the middle are thinking critically and reasonably, ready to act, and are hungry for leadership. 

Concern is reasonable. As of this posting, Texas (DSHS) reports that 10,405 patients are hospitalized due to coronavirus. 5,655 new cases were reported on July 13th, 2020 and 3,235 Texans have died as of July 13th, 2020. That’s 43 more than the day before and 580 more than a week ago. Overall there are 264, 313 cases in 247 counties. Just a few weeks away from the new school year and Texas is a hot spot and it makes complete sense that parents and teachers are concerned. 

According to Caissa Public Strategy 89% of parents are concerned about their child’s safe return in the fall. 61% of parents may consider changing schools if safety expectations are not met. 83.13% of parents want change. 59% of parents are very likely to leave the school if there is a failure to make safety adjustments. 

How do I make this decision if I can’t get answers to reasonable questions? Reasonable questions like, will temperature checks be required upon entering the building? Will student schedules be staggered to reduce children in the classrooms and hallways? Will students and staff be required to wear masks? Who will enforce mask wearing? Who will provide them? Will there be hand washing and hand sanitizing procedures implemented and enforced? Will COVID-19 testing be required of staff and students? What are the processes, procedures, and expectations of online learning? Students, caregivers, and parents want to know such things. It’s not that people are looking for things to be completely figured out. People want to know what is figured out and what isn’t, and whatever isn’t, what’s being done about it? There is some information out there from the school district but it is lacking in scope and confidence. On a larger level, this isn’t just an issue with school districts. Government at all levels appears aloof, self-centered, and preoccupied. Parents also seem increasingly worried and vulnerable to viewing all matters of decision making as Faustian bargains. 

What I’ve observed from many parents is this demand to be lead. It’s one thing to desire direction, it’s another thing to demand a ride. While many are outspoken at the lack of leadership from all over, many are lacking leadership in their own homes. You don’t have to wait to be told to wear a mask or to social distance. You have been given a choice between your child attending school online or in person. This is a choice that needs to be made in the best interest of your family, and dare I say, other families as well. More on that in a minute. When it comes to the choice you make, make it, live with it, and adapt to change. All problems are solved with insufficient information and all solutions come with a degree of risk. If this pandemic has revealed anything it’s that the overwhelming majority of individuals, families, entities, and businesses, were completely unprepared for even the slightest disturbance in their normal and abnormal routines. 

I found myself without conviction one way or another as to what would be best for my family, especially considering that out of my four children, two are in at risk populations for COVID-19. I’m not going to lie, a school year without carpool lanes and bullying sounds fantastic. Of course, having kids at home that much has its drawbacks as well, especially for them. I love my children so much and as a parent I have to worry about everything. Feelings of isolation and missing out. Symptoms of depression and anxiety. Not to mention what will the quality of the education be? Online learning is not new but if the sunlight of coronavirus has shown us anything it’s that the public-school system was not ready for a problem like this. So, do I choose to enroll them in full attendance and just trust that it will be a safe environment? Surely it will feel more normal. I assume everybody will be compliant. The school will most certainly have a plan if it becomes unsafe, right? I’m not sure what to do and I’m concerned. Lucky for me, a complete and total stranger was about to change all of that. A rockstar mom from inside the school district was about to drop a game changing dose of knowledge right on top of my head. 

What has been fundamentally challenging in this discussion of opening schools or not opening schools is the lack of leadership and communication at the federal, local, central, and school district levels. There are many reasons this is occurring and many of them are reasonable. This is unprecedented. This is difficult. There is pressure all around. I get that. Yet still, parents are out there in the field of life and they have to make decisions, big decisions, and that’s assuming they are in a place where they have choices to make at all. Spring break 2020 started and it hasn’t stopped. I can barely catch my breath, especially with a mask on. 

Not all families and households can just weather storm after storm after storm. Whether it’s poverty, a special needs child, a dysfunctional, neglectful, or abusive home, or employment with no margin, there are many households backed into a corner with no choice. Generations of families have designed their entire lives around the schedule of the public-school system. Many families can barely afford life when everything is going as planned. Is anybody considering what it looks like for a parent who is faced with this very decision yet cannot make the decision they want to because they cannot miss one hour of work or upset an already angry schedule? I am familiar with these circumstances and have lived in a world where making the best bad choice was a good as it got. Where life as a parent means regularly not getting your way. Where you make the best of suffering while smiling and acting as if the suffering was meant to be. Are we thinking about them? Are we thinking about the parents and children who need an untold amount of support to have education in their lives?  The spectrum of children with special needs is extraordinary and online learning simply isn’t an option for them, their loved ones, and their educators. Are we thinking about them? 

I decided to go online looking for new information and the only place of value was the Facebook page of the school district. I knew I was taking my chances. I came across a post by the district that included a link to new cleaning protocols that will better support what they are calling “in-person instruction.” As I engaged the link, I noticed a comment about the lack of custodial services last year for regular operations. I was intrigued so I looked on. I made a comment about how it seems that half of the district is taking this seriously and the other half is not. Then a comment popped up towards another individual that read, “you must not have a special needs child.” That stopped me in my tracks, and I wasn’t sure why. I read on but was unable to shake that comment. I asked that person what they meant, and they politely responded that, “special education children need the structure of the classroom and without it regression is inevitable.” I thanked her for her response and agreed that, “creative solutions for at risk populations and those with special needs are barely considered when there isn’t a pandemic.” That’s when it hit me. While my days with 504 plans and IEP’s may be over, those days rage on for so many. I started feeling selfish and unaware. 

Out of nowhere a comment popped up that hit me like a roaring freight train. From L.D. “My kids (students) have learning disabilities. It is so much harder for them to be able to do their work without someone right there. I imagine kids with disabilities that manifest physically or in more obvious ways would have an even harder time when unable to attend in person.

When all kids return to school, that will increase chances of all kids getting sick. If as many kids who are able to work from home do so, we can reduce the number of kids in the school buildings, which reduces the risk to those kids and teachers who must come in because they have to and because they cannot do the required work from home.” 

I read that comment and found the conviction I so deeply desired. I felt remorseful and selfish. I hadn’t once thought about the bigger picture. I hadn’t once thought about any needs outside of my home. I was myopic and distressed and couldn’t see past my fears and frustrations. It wasn’t until I thought of others that I could properly think of myself.  

The reason this hit me so hard is because L.D. was speaking to me and my household. At this time, we are able to manage online learning. I am a mental health professional and my wife is a medical professional. Our schedules are structured in such a way that we can hang back and reduce the overall exposure at the school’s physical location. We can pull off distance learning for the time being and do our part. Maybe right now this isn’t a matter of politics. Maybe it’s not about the data. Maybe it’s not about my rights or your rights. Maybe it’s not even a matter of civility. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a matter of heart. Leadership begins in the home and healing belongs in the community, and while enlightenment is hard to find on the internet, it is there, you just have to look for it. 

Jeremy J. Lanning MA, LPC, CCTP