News

Sluggish Return to School Wears on F.C. Parents

ENTHUSIAM for online learning waned fast for Kendra Lee’s older son, who is now in fourth grade, and her younger one (pictured here), who is now in kindergarten. (Photo: Courtesy Kendra Lee)

Next month’s gradual return for most elementary-age students in and around the City of Falls Church will serve as their parents’ final, white-knuckled lap in guiding their kids’ education.

Raising children challenges parents to be many things. When the coronavirus pandemic forced most of public life to shut down in March, it forced them to not only bring their professional lives home, but take up a side job as teachers. The “new normal” for parents had them assuming a new role depending on whichever room of the house they were in.

“During this time, I can’t be 100 percent a good employee, 100 percent a good parent or 100 percent a good spouse,” said City resident Amanda Alderson, who has a third grade son at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and a daughter in kindergarten at Mount Daniel Elementary School. “You’re trying to make sure that you are all of those things, and unfortunately it feels like you just fail at all of them.”

“Chaotic,” “horrible” and “traumatic” are just some of the words parents used to describe the first few months running a classroom.

Alderson said she and her husband had difficulty helping their son with his math homework, and handling his frustrations if it didn’t click. And she said her daughter had regular meltdowns after being bored from a long day of virtual schooling.

Jennifer Landers’ third grade son at TJ has also struggled academically. She said he needs someone to sit next to him or else he won’t get any work done. It was hard for her and her husband, who run a home-building firm and an engineering firm, respectively, to be there for him all the time.

Single mom Sammi Hawkins said “there were a lot of tears” shared in the spring between her and her fourth grade daughter at Bailey’s Upper Elementary. Being the director of a nonprofit was not easy when she had to spend 30 minutes each on science and math lessons for her daughter’s schooling.

And Kendra Lee is afraid nothing is being retained by her kindergarten son at Mount Daniel. That stress was on top of her husband being laid off and having to find a new job, and not being able to have her McLean-based parents help out over fears of infecting them.

“We haven’t really gotten a break. It’s been just a grind…we’re kind of in this phase of exhaustion,” Alyssa Finamore said. The single mother of a third grade son and a kindergarten daughter in the City added, “My kids aren’t seeing me at my best.”

Despite how draining the spring was — and how grating it was to cancel the rest of the year altogether in April — the parents could accept why it was a wash. But the news that the Falls Church schools wouldn’t attempt in-person learning to start the new academic year confounded them.

By the end of July Falls Church superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan announced that they would start the year virtually. He cited a surge of teachers requesting a year leave of absence, a lack of worker’s compensation for Covid-19 infections and predictions that opening schools would lead to viral outbreaks by state health officials as the reasons why, among other things.

ONE OF THE DAILY MELTDOWNS that Amanda Alderson’s kindergarten-aged daughter was having throughout the spring. (Photo: Courtesy Amanda Alderson)

This wasn’t expected by the parents who spoke with the News-Press. Surveys put out by the school system weeks earlier showed that over 90 percent of its 2,300 responses wanted some form of in-person learning. Private schools in the area and other public schools around the country had reopened safely. They also noted how Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the most trusted medical voices on how to approach the virus, said that “green zones” (areas with lower than a 5 percent positivity rate) and yellow zones (areas with a 5 – 10 percent positivity rate) can reopen cautiously.

When the survey results were published, Fairfax Health District’s seven-day positivity rate was 5.6 percent, per the state’s health department. Today it’s roughly 3.5 percent.

On top of that, these parents enrolled their kids in summer camps or put them in youth sports leagues. And with the new school year having started, they arranged to have their children set up at study hall-like atmospheres either through the community center’s REC Connect program or at a church. The parents said that doing virtual learning in a social setting has been a big boost to their kids’ mental health (as well as their own).

Plus they were regularly interacting with other kids — and not getting sick.

When rating out of 10 how fearful they were of their children contracting coronavirus at school and bringing it home, Finamore said she was at four. Landers said zero. Alderson said negative 10.

“What’s best for our kids was reopening safely,” Lee said. “That’s where I felt really abandoned [by Falls Church schools] because we weren’t focused on the right things like getting [personal protective equipment], or getting our teachers what they need or setting up classes for social distancing.

Still, not everyone is comfortable with sending their children back.

“In my situation, where her dad has passed away, I’m acutely aware of death. That’s morbid and all but it’s real.” Hawkins, the single mom of one, said. “When Fairfax County gave us the option of virtual or in-person, I had already chosen virtual…taking that risk of sending her to school and bringing something back to me, that was not a chance I was going to take.”

Falls Church schools’ hybrid model option that begins in November appears to complicate how parents can schedule out their day. The school would have students come to class for a three hour period either in the morning or afternoon, Tuesday through Friday, and do the other half of their learning virtually.

Finamore wondered whether the school will provide daycare, or if programs like REC Connect will still be available to assist her children when they’re not in class. Would she end up having to pay for two childcare programs? Amy Youngs from the City’s Recreation and Parks department told the News-Press that REC Connect intends to continue into November and beyond for its 40 students already enrolled, who are mostly in kindergarten, although she doesn’t expect the program will open up to new families due to staffing limitations.

Even with that availability, Landers doesn’t think the hybrid model is sustainable for working parents, nor is it really scratching the social itch that kids need.

“The intangibles you get from a school community, that just can’t be achieved online,” Landers said. “I don’t fault the teachers at all, I just really think that the [Falls Church schools] leadership has missed the mark here.”

Parents have until Oct. 19 to determine whether they want their children to take part in the hybrid model or remain virtual.