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Juggling Act: Let's stop judging parents about school decision-making

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Louise Sloan and Crystal Wilson are both committed moms with children at the same Bloomfield Hills elementary school. They’re also co-chairs of their school’s PTO. And they like one another.

“I love Louise,” said Wilson, who has two young sons.

But while Sloan had planned to send her three children back for in-person learning in September, Wilson plans to keep her third-grader and kindergartner at home, doing virtual learning.

Two families, two different choices. And both respect one another’s decision.

“I think that this is probably going to be the hardest part about the next part of the pandemic: respecting one another in a graceful way,” said Sloan.

Parents face tough choices during a pandemic when it comes to education.

Parents across Metro Detroit and the country are grappling with the nerve-wracking decision these days of whether to send their kids to school or pursue online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But we all need to leave one variable out of the equation: judging one another’s choices.

Parenting is hard enough without deeming one decision more “right” than the other. Every family’s situation is unique. And when it comes to a once-in-a-century pandemic that’s completely upended our lives, we’re all trying to figure out a way forward for a virus that isn’t going away.

For some parents, they don’t have a choice about learning this fall. Districts such as Grosse Pointe, Southfield, Rochester and Berkley have approved plans to start the year online.

My family lives in a district in Oakland County that is still offering the choice between online learning and in-person learning for four half-days a week, though that could change before the start of the school year. And my husband and I agree that in-person is best for both our kids. We have a son who is more anxious than I’ve ever seen him and he needs to be in school.

We also have a daughter with severe special needs who craves the structure of school. As an extended school year student, she typically goes year-round. She also gets all her therapies – speech, occupational and physical – at school. Instead she’s been having four Zoom sessions a week for therapy and my husband and I take turns caring for her when we aren’t working.

That doesn’t mean I don’t feel nauseated – or not judged by other parents – about our decision. At a picnic with friends last week, one friend said there was “no way” he’d consider in-person learning for his child and he wouldn’t subject her to that. Another friend on social media said that she would never “gamble” with her daughter’s life. 

None of us wants to gamble with our children’s health or safety. But we also need to recognize that we each face different circumstances at home and have kids with different needs. That means going to school in-person is the right choice for some. For others, online is the right fit.

For Wilson, she said there were two main deciding factors in her and her husband’s decision to keep their sons at home. The African-American community has been especially hard hit by COVID-19 so health is one big reason, said Wilson, who is Black.

“I know 6 people that have passed,” said Wilson. “This has hit way too close to home.”

Another factor, she said, was continuity. When school shutdown in March, Wilson, who works full-time as does her husband, was scrambling, she said. If schools were to shut down again, Wilson said she doesn’t want to completely destroy her children’s routine. In the fall, she already plans to have a babysitter supervise her sons’ schoolwork three days a week and she’ll divvy up the other days with her husband and mom.

“Kids are resilient but there’s something about routine that makes something easier,” said Wilson.

Sloan, meanwhile, said she and her husband had decided in-person learning is best for their children because they’ve been following the news and data about how children are affected by the virus and they seem to less likely to get seriously ill. They’ve also stressed the importance of hand-washing and masks. 

“We know that there are risks with going to school, but we feel that the benefits outweigh the cost for our family,” said Sloan.

Another factor was that the kids really want to go in-person, said Sloan.

“They are all aching to get back,” said Sloan. “My oldest didn’t want to start middle school online. Going back to school was important to them and this contributed to our decision.”

Two families, two different choices. And one isn’t more right than the other. Unfortunately, their district decided early Friday morning that all students would start the year virtually.

As this unprecedented school year approaches, let’s respect that we all have different circumstances. Life is hard enough right now without judging each other’s choices.