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DENVER -- All across Colorado, families are trying to figure out whether to send their kids back to school or keep them home and opt for remote learning as cases of the novel coronavirus continue to rise.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the upcoming school year more uncertain than ever.
Throughout the summer, school districts have been offering surveys, holding town hall discussions, meeting with health experts, stocking up on personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies and doing what they can to prepare for the upcoming school year.
Some districts have committed themselves to in-person learning; other districts are opting to begin the year with remote learning.
While the president calls for schools to completely reopen in the fall, others are warning of the potential danger to faculty and pushing for remote learning.
All of these different opinions and changing plans have made the decision for parents confusing. Here’s a 360 look at the decision families are making for the upcoming school year.
Opting for remote learning
For the Grewe household, life can be a bit chaotic; Jess and Brian Grewe have two sets of twins, boys who are seven and girls who are eight years of age.
That chaos compounded when in-person schooling stopped after Spring Break last school year.
“It kind of came to a very abrupt halt. It was a Friday and they said, ‘OK remote learning starts Monday,’” Jess Grewe said.
Once that happened, the family went out and bought two more Google Chrome books so that each kid could have their own laptop to work on.
With the fall semester coming up, the family is opting for remote learning out of an abundance of safety.
“I mean, it seems like a pretty easy choice because their health and safety comes first before anything else.” Grewe said.
Brian is considered a to be in a high-risk category for COVID-19; he is a paraplegic and has decreased lung function.
Beyond that, Jess says the changes to schools with social distancing and health precautions could distract her kids from their work and cause them unnecessary stress. If there is another outbreak and people are asked to stay home again, the disruption in the family’s routine could also be hectic.
“I want a reason to be able to send them in person. I want a reason, but I have not found one that’s outweighs the risk of death,” Grewe said.
Both parents also have an education background and say they are able to help their kids with their schoolwork. For other families, the couple says there may be some creative solutions like micro-schooling where a small group of parents each takes a day a week to watch the kids and oversee their schoolwork.
They say that would allow the parents to work a more normalized schedule, give the kids a chance to develop relationships with one another and keep families safe by limiting their exposure to only a few other people.
“There can be creative solutions to this. The unfortunate aspect is that it feels like the school districts, and not just Jeffco and DPS and Dougco, are making decisions that are economically based,” Brian Grewe said.
For now, they’ve chosen for all four of their kids to do remote learning for the first trimester and then they will reevaluate based on the COVID-19 data in their area.
“Kids are resilient, they’re going to have time to make up and so even if we don’t do a perfect job of educating them at home at least we still have them,” Jess Grewe said.
Back to school
Other parents are opting for in-person learning for their children in the fall. Ashlee Wedgeworth has four children who range in age from three to 15 attending three different schools.
When in-person instruction ended in the spring, Wedgeworth says it was hard to keep all of her children progressing, particularly since the way children are learning things like addition are different than how their parents were taught.
“It’s really challenging. I mean, even the first week we couldn’t log onto the apps. The kids are having a hard time managing them,” Wedgeworth said.
Along with having to work through technical difficulties, both parents work full-time and were trying balance their jobs with childcare and remote learning.
“My job never closed during this; we had to do things to adjust. I work in the behavioral health field with substance abuse, mental health and homeless services,” she said.
Wedgeworth’s family was able to make schooling work for a couple of months but they don’t believe the family can sustain remote learning long-term.
“It just really boggles my mind how we can have restaurants open, bars, grocery stores and all the services but we’re really concerned when it comes to the schools,” Wedgeworth said. “If we have all of these creative strategies in opening these other businesses, then why can’t we get there for the school system?”
She would support a hybrid model if it were offered, however her child’s district, Denver Public Schools, has not offered that option up until this point.
Allison Fry is also in support of in-person schooling. Fry has a 6-year-old son with physical and developmental disabilities who needs speech and occupational therapy in school.
“He’s a kiddo who doesn’t do well with transitions and he’s a kiddo who strives with a routine and then all of that was stripped of him,” she said.
When in-person instruction stopped, Fry started to notice her son regressing. She feels that her son was stripped of his kindergarten experience.
“He was doing so well, we were seeing leaps and bounds of improvements and then whenever we went to online learning, that all came to a screeching halt,” Fry said. “That was really hard as a mom, to see him going from this place where he’s doing so well and thriving to now where he can’t make eye contact with people again.”
Fry is also a single mother who works at a dance studio and she says of course she is concerned about her son’s health, but she feels he needs to be back in school with his support system.
“I understand that there are families who are totally against sending their children back. They have their own reasoning and that is totally fine, and I can respect those opinions,” she said. “What makes the most sense for my son is to be in person, in the building, being able to be with his peers.”
A third option
For parents who don’t feel safe sending their kids back to school and who didn’t feel the remote learning option worked very well this past spring, there may be a third option.
Homeschooling groups say they are seeing an increasing interest among parents who have never considered the option before.
Angela Shelley is the owner of Messy Growth and has been homeschooling her kids for more than 12 years. At first, she was hesitant to try the idea with her own kids. The family wasn’t happy with the school district they live in and they couldn’t afford private school so they started searching for another option.
“My husband suggested homeschooling and I was like, ‘Oh gosh isn’t that like with people with like prairie bonnets and like pioneer outfits?’” Shelley said.
Now, more than a decade later, Shelley says she wouldn’t have it any other way; her family loves the flexibility homeschooling offers and the fact that the kids can complete their work from anywhere.
She also likes the fact that she can create the curriculum, set the pace and go more into depth on topics her kids show an interest in. However, Shelley admits that homeschooling can be challenging.
“There’s definitely some ups and downs. I mean I’m not going to lie, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows,” she said. “Give yourself some grace, give yourself some time to mess up and try again. It’s not going to be perfect the first time.”
Despite this, Shelley says trying out homeschooling for a year could offer families some relief during an unprecedented situation.
“Just a certainty of being able to say, 'you know, what we’re doing this this year. We’re not going to go back-and-forth, we’re not going to do the hybrid, we’re not going to not know what’s going on, we’re just going to do this,'” Shelley said.
The first thing Shelley wanted parents to understand is that remote learning and homeschooling are not the same thing.
In Colorado, there are two ways to start homeschooling, either sent a letter of intent to your school district or sign up as an umbrella school.
Families will also need to decide what type of homeschooling they want to do. There is an entire spectrum of curriculum, ranging from classical homeschooling to a philosophy called "unschooling."
Some options are teacher-intensive and require the adults to be present and guide the students through the topic. Other options can involve online schooling.
Shelley uses several different options depending on the subject. For math, she likes to be present to help her kids through it.
Her advice for parents considering starting this option is to start simple.
“If you’ve come from a school background, then start with workbooks,” Shelley said. “They will give you workbooks and they’ll give you teacher books and they’ll tell you exactly what to say and when to say it.”
As parents become more comfortable with homeschooling, they can venture into less traditional curricula.
For parents who are considering this option, Shelley suggests reaching out to a homeschooling group or consultant to talk about best practices.
Opt in, opt out
With the fall semester quickly approaching, families are having a having a difficult conversation about whether to send their kids to school or keep them home.
No two families are the same and there’s a myriad of factors to consider, including your family’s health and work situation.
In the end, it will be up to each family to deliberate all of the options and pick the one that works best for them during an unprecedented time.