- With no end to pandemic in sight, parents are contemplating several bad options including, home schooling, educational pods and au pairs.
To go virtual or not, that is the question plaguing school districts across the 50 states. With teachers’ unions, board of education officials, along with scientists, government officials, parents and the White House on opposite sides of the fence, this has been a hotly debated issue across the country.
A recent poll by the Washington Post found that 39 percent of parents polled preferred going all online, while only 16 percent preferred an all in-person, face-to-face school year. Forty-four percent preferred the hybrid model — a mix of online and in person instruction.
The mixed feelings reflect widespread anxiety among parents that there is no national consensus on how to balance the risks of the virus against the academic, social and economic impacts of keeping schools closed and the burden on working parents to ensure they meet the educational demands of their child’s curriculum and the demands of their professional life.
Atlanta residentAsha Jahagirdar, an IT consultant and mother of two — Aarav (9) and Anvika (4) — is not on board with sending her kids to school. “We are not comfortable with sending our kids to school yet. My son’s school has gone 100 percent virtual, but my daughter’s Montessori, is part virtual and part face-to-face. So, we have decided to home school her,” she says, adding with a sigh, “I am trying to find interesting activities for her to do every day to keep her engaged and learning. But it is hard.”
To keep her very active daughter engaged, Jahagirdar has played hours of board games — carrom, Taboo and the age-old favorite, Ludo. “We have done hours of origami and coloring along with outdoor activities like biking, basketball, roller blading and table tennis. But with trying to keep up with schoolwork, with our busy work schedule, it’s going to be hard.”
Both Jahagirdar and her husband Deepak, also in IT, are currently working from home.
Whatever side of the debate you fall on, many parents have realized an agonizing truth: if school happens in person, it might not feel safe. And if it happens remotely, it will be inadequate, isolating and unable to provide the childcare many working parents need.
Amisha Mistry, a Montessori teacher and a mom has a unique perspective. “As a teacher, I prefer being in school with my children, but as a mom, I want school to be virtual.”
As to why the difference of opinion, Mistry explains, “For a teacher, teaching virtually is mentally challenging, especially since I teach young kids. Young children need social interaction and need to experience the variety of teaching materials in the classroom. Also, their attention span for being on a screen on Zoom calls is limited. Also, little children are not used to operating laptops and computers, so have to depend on their parents. Working parents have to be available for their child when we teach virtually. That can be difficult for many parents. These children need us (teachers). I will have my mask and face shield on, ready to greet my students on Monday.”
However, she does agree that given the rise in COVID cases recently, virtual learning is a safe option. Mistry teaches at Crabapple Montessori School in Georgia. With a limited class size, they will open their doors to learning on Aug. 10.
Vishal Venkatram, in management, lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and is father to two, Veda (8) and Varun (3). He and his wife, Vidya, prefer virtual learning at this time. “We even unenrolled our younger child from the Montessori that he was in and are going to home school him till the situation improves.” Not regretting his decision, Venkatram adds, “My son would have thrived in the primary classroom he was going into. And my very social daughter will miss the social interactions, but this is best for now.”
SD (initials on request), a stay-at-home mom from Maryland would have preferred a hybrid model with children going to school a few days a week, however, she believes that “the only realistic option for schooling given the state of the pandemic, is virtual.”
Part of the Montgomery County Public Schools, SD’s children will be entering the 6th and 4th grades, respectively, and will be going virtual till Jan. 29, 2021.
Chandreyee Lahiri, GIS specialist in Environmental Management, who has a 13-year-old son, Oyon Ganguli, a rising 8th grader at a public school in Waltham, Massachusetts, also prefers the hybrid model for fall. “My son did well with online school in spring but is at an age where peer socialization feels important for mental health and personality development. Better educational experiences come from in-person experiments, demonstrations and interactions. Self-confidence comes from public speaking, which is easy to avoid in Google classrooms!”
With a rising trend in cases and faced with the chance of a second surge, the school districts in Massachusetts have gone virtual. “We are happy with the decision taken,” Lahiri adds.
As panicked, working parents scramble to find ways to juggle work, school and home, “pandemic” (educational) pods or micro-schools have sprung up. Many of these pods are friends and families banding together and hiring a tutor, but some parents have also turned to posting personal ads in Facebook and other online portals in search of a compatible pod.
These pods are essentially groups of students (3-10 maximum in a pod) whose parents have paid for professional instruction because of the chaos the COVID-19 crisis has wrought on America’s schools. Some say these pods are a decent solution to a real-time problem.
“A few of our friends are considering educational pods for their children,” says Jahagirdar, who prefers to hire a one-on-one tutor rather than send her children to a pod, with other kids.
Gayathri Vinod, a software product manager in Boston, Massachusetts, and mother to two boys, 7 and 9, says that she is aware of the micro-schools, but will not be sending her sons to them. She is planning on teaching them herself.
Anupreeti Alhat, an IT specialist from Colorado, and mother to 14-year-old Siddhant who attends school in the Cherry Creek district, is looking to put her son into a pod. “My son is a teenager, so I won’t be teaching him myself. But a pod can help him become a more independent learner.”
The Venkatrams are also planning on putting their daughter into a pod to help with language classes.
Most parents are also concerned about the consequences of more virtual education. The Post-Schar School survey found nearly 7 in 10 say they worry children will fall behind in their education. Just over 6 in 10 say they worry their children’s friendships will suffer and almost as many worry that their kids will become depressed. Among parents who anticipate at least partially online instruction this fall, 54 percent expect the quality to be worse than in person classes, compared with 12 percent who think it will be better and 34 percent who expect no difference.
Say Montessori teacher and mother, Mistry, “I will fill the gap in her education and give her the extra support if she needs it.”
Vinod adds, “Education will surely be impacted, but it’s only for one year so it’s not a big deal. They will get to learn things that cannot be taught at school.”
She plans to teach her sons Indian classical music and also have healthy daily discussions about history, current affairs and Indian culture. “Things we would have had little time for with a normal schedule,” Vinod says.
Lahiri, who has no immediate plans to be part of a pod or hire a tutor says, “To counter gaps in learning, if any, we enrolled our son in online enrichment classes for math.”
Lahiri, who loves to read says, “Learning comes in many flavors and the pandemic has opened some doors that we may not have ordinarily looked at.” Their family has taken to reading prolifically and watching diverse movies, both of which have sparked interesting discussions. “We would like him to cook more so he learns life skills and we have given him more responsibilities – like mowing the lawn and household chores.”
Alhat doesn’t believe there will be any lags. She is using the opportunity to teach her son how to face obstacles in life and problem solve. “Education is not only about learning various subjects. There is more to it than that. This is not a long-term situation. So, let’s not stress.”
Says Venkatram, “We have fairly young kids. Maybe this is the time to teach them how to climb trees, not fear the bees and get their hands dirty!” However, balancing professional life and that of parent-turned-educator may not be easy for many.
“We have to change our work schedules and build in more flexibility so that we can help our children when required,” says Jahagirdar, adding with a sigh, “I have blocked an hour in the morning to dedicate time so that I can supervise the kids. I may need to also work late into the night to accommodate this change in schedule.”
SD adds that more so than ever now, with schooling being virtual she will have to be “involved in things like keeping the children on schedule and on task, providing tech support, while also making sure they get enough physical activity etc.”
Juggling Career and School
Gayathri Vinod says with a shake of her head, “Juggling career and school will be a challenge for sure, but my kids’ safety comes first.”
“It does not make sense that I am required to work from home for safety reasons, but then I have to send kids to school,” Vinod adds incredulously, asking, “what about their safety and teachers’ safety?”
Lahiri, however, believes all the impacts on their schedules would be positive, if evidenced by the three months of online learning in spring. “Our son is fairly self-disciplined when it comes to classes and needs no supervision. Any academic engagement on our part is voluntary. But not having to commute and being able to work productively from home has given my husband and I more family time and the chance to engage in enriching activities with him!”
Venkatram has hired an au pair to help with the children’s school work although his daughter is fairly self-managing. “Juggling is not easy. It’s challenging. But we are focusing more on the extra-curriculars than core subject areas.”
With schools going virtual, many parents think that along with education, sports will be impacted.
Lahiri admits, “Sports are a huge loss. My son is into a few, so with those avenues closed, physical fitness has taken a huge hit. We are trying to make up by assigning him daily chin-ups and forcing him to go outdoors with his friends. But it is hard.”
Alhat adds, “Parks are open, let the kids run. Let them play. And yes, for competitive sports, this year will be missed. But I urge parents to take it easy and use this time to help kids improve their skills.”
As summer rapidly ends and the debate continues Venkatram says, “Let the kids enjoy. Do more reading and art. Once the situation improves, we can get back on the saddle.”
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.