Online school? In-person? How parents are making their own fall 2020 decisions as COVID-19 squabbles continue

Marco della Cava, USA TODAY

As officials play political football with K-12 school reopenings, parents such as Johanne Davis are formulating their own game plans for the fall.

“To exercise an abundance of caution, I’d like to keep my kids home with me where they’ll study online,” says Davis, a mother of three from Indian Land, South Carolina, one of countless states where COVID-19 cases have spiked in recent weeks.

“Health is the issue, not just for my children, but also school workers," Davis says. "Teachers shouldn’t have to be front-line soldiers in this pandemic.”

Families across the nation are busy making their own calculations about whether to send children back to school. While Davis seems resolved, many parents are still mulling.

Most are taking a measured and hyper-local approach to what is ultimately a very personal decision, consulting with friends, neighbors and local educators. That's despite the issue becoming increasingly political, with President Donald Trump and state officials weighing in last week, sometimes in conflict with published health guidance.

USA TODAY checked in with more than a dozen households. No matter their geographic or financial backgrounds, parents are often conflicted and confused. Some are keen to stay safe and opt for online classes, while others are willing to try partial in-person learning while keeping an eye on rising case numbers. And many are willing to change their plans if the situation demands it.

“This whole issue is nuanced,” says Jenna Schwartz of Los Angeles, a mother of two, former teacher and leader of an area organization called Parents Supporting Teachers.

“My non-medical opinion is it is not safe to return to school,” says Schwartz, citing mixed messaging on how susceptible children are to the virus and how easily they can transmit it to adults. “Is kids’ health more important than returning to school? Of course it is. But what if the inability to return to school forces a parent to lose their job and their insurance? That’s a different kind of health crisis.”

The confusion extends to the highest levels of government. Instead of a unified response, guidance seems to change almost daily.

This past week, President Donald Trump, a fierce advocate for a full fall reopening, appeared to go to war with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose guidelines he deemed too strict. The CDC ultimately did not significantly revise its stance.

The American Academy of Pediatrics had also been calling for the full resumption of in-person classes, but last week its president, Dr. Sally Goza, clarified that states with surging cases of COVID-19, the pulmonary disease caused by coronavirus, should modify their plans based on those case numbers.

On Friday, the organization issued a new statement. "Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools."

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized school districts contemplating non-full-time measures, but her own department released a report saying students attending in-person classes just a few days a week could keep everyone safer.

“There are no ideal solutions here,” says Kao-Ping Chua, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan’s Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center. The child health center released a survey indicating a third of parents in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio may not send kids to school in the fall.

“No matter what schools do, they won’t make everyone happy," he says. "And unfortunately, beyond conflicting information that’s getting politicized, states are seeing surging cases, which is not an environment you want to open schools in.”

Parents depend on consistency

Parents doing their fall calculus should weigh their risk appetite and consult family doctors, says Dr. Nathaniel Beers, a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Beers helped produce the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines for reopening, which encourage administrators to be flexible and respond to shifting case numbers and community needs.

“We’ve heard from people who say kids should be out, and others say they want them at home, but it’s all about: 'What’s the right decision for me and my family?'” he says. “And don’t feel badly if you make a decision today, and you later change your mind.”

Easier said than done, says Khem Irby of Greensboro, North Carolina, a local school board member and president of Parents Across America, a national advocacy organization. She says many parents depend on a consistent school schedule in order to head off to work.

“Many of the parents I’ve been speaking with are very clear: They’re not sending their kids back to school unless school districts can come up with a plan they can trust and it's consistent,” says Irby. “Unfortunately, many schools out there might not have the money to truly accommodate social distancing and cleaning guidelines.”