William Martinez proudly recounted his 15-year-old son’s feats in school over the past couple of years: making friends, learning math, ordering pizza on his own.
Angel has autism, so school has been critical for his social and academic growth. But he also suffers from asthma, which means he’s at higher risk from the coronavirus than the average teen. Martinez worries if Angel goes back to school in September, he’ll have a hard time staying 6 feet apart from others.
“It took so long for him to get those skills up to now,” said Martinez, of Prospect Park. “If we go somewhere, if we go to a family member’s house, he’ll be real close to them and start hugging. I tell him you have to relax. I’m telling him not to hug anymore.
“I say, ‘Papi, you’ve got to understand there’s coronavirus, there’s a sickness. You just have to keep away from people.”
Like Martinez, parents across the state are grappling with the difficult decision of whether to send their children back to brick-and-mortar schools in the fall or opt for remote education – with all its shortcomings and sacrifices. Amid a swirl of mixed messages from politicians and educators, they’re weighing the benefits of in-person learning against the risks that their children could contract the virus and pass it on.
While New Jersey has seen a precipitous drop in COVID-19 cases since its peak in April, the rate of transmission had ticked upward recently and worries remain about a potential second wave.
Some parents want to keep children home to eliminate any risk of exposure to coronavirus – especially those who have children or family members with pre-existing health problems. But others say that remote education has taken a different kind of toll, with students struggling to focus or dealing with the depression and isolation of being stuck behind a screen.
Jessica Foster, a teacher’s aide from Ridgefield, said the lack of structure in remote education was a problem.
“They can have whatever time they can to complete their homework,” said Foster, who has a son in middle school and daughter in high school. “They were waking up 10 or 11. I’d rather them be out and about learning face-to-face.”
“I’m comfortable with them going back,” she added. “The fact is that they are healthy and I’m confident that teachers are taking every precaution.”
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‘Living their lives’
Angela Oberle, who has three children in elementary school in Ramsey, said her district has a strong plan for sanitizing and social distancing. But she worries about what could happen when the school day ends. She knows people in her community are holding graduation parties, vacationing in states where COVID cases are surging and eating out without masks.
“In my imagination, my kids are going to be in the classroom with friends we know and neighbors we know who are living their lives right now,” said Oberle, a stay-at-home mother. “That’s what really makes me nervous, when I see the way people are behaving.”
Oberle has a kidney disorder that weakens her immune system, so the virus could put her at greater risk. Her wife worries, though, that their children will miss out if they stay home and are “living a different life than their friends.”
“She’s more of a positive person and thinks things most likely we’ll be ok,” she said. “I’m more alarmist and worry what could happen.”
School districts that surveyed families in June reported a wide range of answers about fall plans. About 10% in Bergen County’s Northern Highlands Regional School District said they’d keep children home, while in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District in central Jersey, 60% said the same. In Garfield and Paterson, about 3 in 10 planned to stay home, but some were undecided, school officials said.
Districts are now redoing these surveys, and replies are likely to change following a surge of cases across the country and mounting debate in New Jersey. A week ago, Gov. Phil Murphy announced families could choose to keep their children in remote learning next year – an option that school officials said previously was not clear.
Districts have also released detailed plans for reopening that could shape family decisions. The plans include schedules that alternate between in-person and online learning and protocols for sanitizing, social distancing and screenings for illness.
‘Don’t want to walk away’
Martinez, the Prospect Park dad, also worries about his 14-year-old daughter who has anemia and asthma and carries an inhaler to gym class. “How would this virus affect her?” he asked.
He said he was waiting for details about safety protocols from Manchester Regional High School before making his decision.
While Angel has connected with peers electronically and attended occupational and speech therapy sessions online, it’s not the same as being in school.
“He has a set routine at home, but what is he going to lose?” Martinez said. “Is he going to lose comprehension? His math skills? Believe me when I tell you we try our best to keep him on a routine but sometimes it doesn’t all work out.”
“I don’t want to walk away,” he added. “I just want to find out what’s safe and make sure kids are getting the education they respectfully deserve.”
Weighing emotional risk
Michele Jenkins has decided she will send her children, in grades 6 and 8, to school in the fall. Their district, Ho-Ho-Kus, will split students into morning and afternoon sessions, maintaining social distancing and leaving an hour in between to sanitize.
“I feel they are doing what they need to do to keep kids safe,” she said, adding that her children are careful about washing hands and wearing masks.
Her husband works from home so childcare is not a concern, as it is for many working parents scrambling to find a place for their children. But her background as a therapist has informed her thinking, she said.
“Especially with middle school and high school children, there is definitely an emotional impact with there being so much isolation from their friends and teachers,” she said. “Each parent has to decide what their comfort level is, but you have to weigh the emotional risk with the physical risk.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has stressed that children learn best in the classroom, but that each community will have to consider the local spread of COVID-19 and their capacity to put safely protocols in place.
“Children get much more than academics at school,” the association wrote in a statement earlier this month. “They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online.”
Jenkins said her 11-year-old daughter had a hard time staying on task during virtual learning and “was not feeling good about herself and what she could accomplish.” She thrives in the classroom when interacting with other children, she said.
“It comes back to parents knowing their children and seeing how their children fared through remote learning,” she said.
Hannan Adely is an education and diversty reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.