By Zach England
Parents are scrambling as Rockbridge Area Schools reopened with a new academic year in their living rooms instead of a classroom.
In some cases, they’re changing work hours. Some are looking for child care. Others have put their kids in a different school.
Part of the challenge is where you live and the age of your children.
The all-virtual classes for Waddell Elementary and Lylburn Downing Middle of Lexington City Schools was a shocker to parents because the school board made the decision in late August and delayed the opening until Sept. 7.
Superintendent Rebecca Walters acknowledged the “inconvenience and the challenges faced by many of our families,” but deemed the move the best choice for the first nine weeks of the school year –citing concerns about the influx of local university students and a rise in COVID-19 cases locally.
Parents and students are not happy. Some have taken the unusual move of switching from city to county schools. Katie Masey moved her first grader from the city’s Waddell school to Central Elementary in the Rockbridge County school system. The reason: Pre-K through first graders are taught in-person.
She and her husband both work and were concerned that daily child care would pose financial and logistical problems. Also, her son is a social kid, so Masey worried that virtual classroom would not be the best option for his and other students’ learning and social, emotional and mental well-being.
“I feel pretty strongly that particularly younger children will not benefit from virtual,” said Masey, a licensed counselor with over 10 years experience working with children and parents. “Having my own young child and working with younger kids, they just get so much from the in-person connection.”
Masey was also disappointed with the lack of acknowledgement of the stress and challenges that families are experiencing during a recent school board meeting, although it was only two days into the school year.
“I’m concerned because I know that a lot of families and children in our community, after six months, are dealing with a lot of anxiety and stress,” she said. “So to have nine more weeks as the standard to reassess, I wanted to make it understood and heard that this needs to be taken into account as well.”
Rebecca Saunders and her husband have two boys at Waddell in fourth and fifth grade. The couple have figured out a good system for the at-home learning. As for her daughter in kindergarten, the couple switched her to a private school so she could be taught in-person.
“My two boys go into my husband’s office and I’m so thankful he has a flexible job,” she said. “He’s there if they need support, but of course it’s not ideal for the long-term for him to have the constant interruptions that are necessary for virtual school, because he has to problem solve for them.”
Saunders hopes that with enough voices speaking up, this won’t stay a problem and the kids can go back to in-person learning sooner than the nine-week time frame.
On top of job interruptions for her husband, being in front of the computer all day is a lot for the kids.
“For my nine-year-old, it’s a long day for him to be looking at a screen. I’ve sensed he’s disappointed that it’s such a long day without the social aspect being the same as what it is being in person,” she said.
Saunders recognized that the teachers and schools are doing their best with situation, and noted that whether they’re in-person or virtual, something is at risk. It’s hard to make the right decision in the midst of a pandemic.
“I understand that there is physical risk out there, but at what point does that overshadow the overall well-being of the children,” she said.
Last week at the school board meeting, officials heard from a fourth grader at Waddell, who sent the board a hand-written letter.
“I’m sad we have to do school at home. I miss my friends and my teachers, but most of all I miss going to school,” he wrote. “My favorite thing about school is math. My friends are sad and stressed.”
On the other hand, Rockbridge County Schools started planning for a virtual setting towards the beginning of August, about a month before school started.
One parent, Kelly Wunder, who works at Encore Salon in downtown Lexington, has had to reduce her schedule from four days a week to just two.
While the county school district is still offering in-person classes for kindergarten and first graders, her third and fifth grade children, Lilly and Blake, still need supervision and assistance. Wunder said she is lucky to be able to decrease her hours and have her mother helping out.
Other parents have had to look to a range of child care services, ranging from “pandemic pods” to the YMCA, the News Gazette reported.
Parents have set up small groups of children to gather in a “pod,” where they are supervised by a qualified instructor, typically a retired teacher. These pods meet a couple times a week and allow the students to socialize and get the most out of their online learning.
Additionally, the YMCA is expanding and has launched two new centers in the area that are attempting to emphasize virtual learning, according to the News Gazette. Their biggest concern is that they may not have enough room to fit the demand with everyone going virtual. For almost all parents though, not being able to drop their kids off at school poses an array of challenges. When asked if there were any positives to an all-virtual setting, Wunder gave a hard no. When you weigh the risks, she said, the concern for bringing COVID into her home is much lower than the social and academic benefits of an in-person setting.The first few days have been review, but once the classes get harder, she and her mother will have to help tutor the kids –which is a concern.“You don’t wanna see me doing 5th grade math,” she said.