Making The (Impossible) Decision About School In the Fall

As school districts offer the choice between remote and in-person learning for children in the Fall, targeted questioning can aid parents’ difficult decision-making process. 

child returning to school during covid 19

For parents everywhere, a question haunts our days and nights:  do we want to send our children back to school in the Fall? The decision feels impossible to make because the external guidelines (e.g., from the CDC and the AAP) keep shifting, politics are eclipsing best practice, and the data on effects of covid-19 on kids continually evolves. 

Because of my background in developmental psychology, many friends have asked for my advice and “expertise.” In this unprecedented situation, however, the answer is not “out there.” No one knows the best answer. No one. So instead we need to come to a decision that’s right for our family at this moment given what we currently know.

In my work as a coach, I’ve found that the best way to support people making difficult decisions that have no clear answer is by asking them targeted questions and encouraging them to hear their own their take on the situation. Don’t try to answer the following questions in your head; we tend to spin in circles when we keep thoughts inside ourselves. Instead, talk your answers out with a listening partner, or journal your responses. 


Is this a decision I’m truly in a position to make?


The reality is that many of us have jobs that require us to return our children to physical school. Or our careers may be completely and irreversibly thrown off track by stepping back at this juncture. And/or we might do the math for our household budget and there really is no choice to be made:  as much in-person time as schools offer, we have to take.

Alternatively, perhaps health vulnerabilities within your family force you in the opposite direction. Remote is the way it has to be.

If either of these are the case for you, don’t beat yourself up for the reality of the situation and continue to ponder the decision. That mental and emotional energy would be better spent preparing your children for the Fall – either what they’ll see and experience in the “new normal” of school, or how to be most effective as a remote learner.


To what extent do I trust my school district to make decisions that work for my family?


As I see fellow parents combing through the Fall school decision, I see trust in our schools as the bottomline issue. Perhaps the Spring change to remote learning broke your trust in some way, or maybe it made you experience increased trust that you haven’t yet recognized. Provide space to consider questions of trust before making a choice about moving forward:

  • Was the decision to make the change to remote learning proactive and, in your eyes, reasonable? 
  • How well were the decisions communicated to you? 
  • How effectively was remote learning handled, keeping in mind the reality of the crisis timeline of having to make these changes? 

We should not pose these questions in order to attack administrators and the teachers. They are doing the absolute best they can in unprecedented circumstances. Instead, the best way of predicting the future is seeing past behavior, so if you felt great about your school’s approach in the Spring, you can trust their decisions in the future. If you have gaps in trust, you could identify questions you could ask of the administration before making your Fall decision, such as:

  • What are the exact safety precautions the school will take? How do these align (or not) with national guidelines and with emerging research on airborne transmission? Do I personally feel comfortable with the protocols?
  • What indicator(s) will our district use to determine that ALL kids are remote? (e.g., a local positivity rate above a certain rate) Whatever their cutoff, am I comfortable with it? If there is no indicator chosen, am I okay with trusting a decision that will be made in the moment?
  • Are staff being treated ethically? Is their process for opting-out of being physically present transparent and in line with my values?


What is my knowledge of my particular child’s needs?


While our children’s “wants” certainly impact their day-to-day psychological states, their needs determine their long-term well-being, so during a crisis moment like coronavirus, we need to prioritize their needs over their wants. 

We know our own children best. Jot down answers to questions about your child, such as:

  • Using the Spring remote experience as a source of data, what worked and what didn’t? 
  • What are your child’s idiosyncratic learning, social, and emotional needs, and how are these best addressed in a pandemic state? 
  • What are the needs that are unique to their age group? To what extent does my child follow these age-group trends? For instance, preschool and kindergarten children learn best in a hands-on manner, but your child may need this to a greater or lesser extent than same-aged peers. 

Given your knowledge of your particular child at their particular age, what are the likelihood of negative educational, social and emotional outcomes if your child learns remotely for months on end? What are the odds if they’re in school with full safety protocols in place? Certainly they may do best in a pre-coronavirus school setting, but since that’s no longer an option, leave it off the table as you think through your child’s needs.

Your lists will vary for each of your children, which makes the decision to stay remote or be in-person even more complicated. We likely feel pressure to make the same decision for the entire family, but that is an assumption we may want to question. 


What are my needs?


As parents, we’re awfully good at putting everyone else’s needs before our own. That’s a problem because our needs are real, and when they’re not met, they impact the entire family system. Some targeted questions about our needs may include:

  • Am I staying emotionally and physically “well enough” during this trying time, where we might define “well enough” as sustainable for an entire academic year? This includes whether we feel that we’re working “competently enough,” a perception that impacts our sense of overall well-being. Is there a way to get to “well enough” with my children learning from home, or is this only possible with them physically at school?
  • What’s my own level of anxiety around Covid-19? How well will I respond when my kid comes home with symptoms (an inevitability given the garden-variety illnesses that swirl in a school setting)? If this will upset me, how severely and for how long? Is in-person learning worth this cost?


How To Make Sense of Your Answers


As you dig into the process of questioning, your answer may actually feel murkier before it feels clear. This is normal. Don’t give up. 

Once you finish answering and then step back to identify the themes in your thinking, ideally with the help of a thought partner, a pattern will emerge. Trust in that pattern:  it won’t be perfect – no decision in this coronavirus situation will be – but it will be the right one for you and your family at this moment in time. 


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