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Hybrid School Reopenings Leave Some Parents Scrambling

After months of waiting to hear if kids were going back to school at all, tens of thousands of other parents are scrambling to deal with the hybrid schedule that most districts in central New York are offering.

by Marnie Eisenstadt, Syracuse Media Group / July 31, 2020
Sarasota City Hall. [HERALD-TRIBUNE ARCHIVE / HAROLD BUBIL / 2012] TNS

(TNS) — Tiffany Gratien’s three kids will be going to two different schools, often on different days, likely at different times.

Quinn will go to kindergarten every day.

Reagan will go to 4th grade in the elementary school two days a week.

Ailyn will go to 6th grade at the middle school two days a week.

Somehow, Gratien, who lives in the Jamesville-DeWitt school district, must manage that schedule while she’s back at her job teaching kindergarten in the Syracuse City School District. Her husband works in IT and must be onsite, too.

“A lot of people I know are quitting their jobs to be home with their kids. How is that possible,” she said. “I can’t do that and I don’t want to.”

After months of waiting to hear if kids were going back to school at all, then weeks more to find out how often, Gratien and tens of thousands of other parents are scrambling to deal with the hybrid schedule most districts in Central New York are offering.

Instead of bringing every kid back every day, districts are largely offering a mix of in-person learning for a day or two at school and the rest of the days online, at home.

Some smaller districts and private schools have been able to offer daily schooling for all, and a few larger districts are bringing the youngest back for full days. But most don’t have the space to have all of the kids there every day while maintaining the required 6 feet between students.

Related article: How is your school reopening? See Central New York school district coronavirus plans

Parents and educators agree that no choice for pandemic schooling is good. Hybrid schedules are simply the best of the bad: Everyone gets some in-person school.

But hybrids also leave parents with an even more difficult juggling act than they had in the spring: Instead of trying to do it all from home while the economy was shut down, many now have to figure out how to be on the job with patched-together childcare.

Some are planning to leave their kids home alone. Others are deciding that the chaos of a couple days on, the rest off, isn’t worth it and are opting to keep their kids home all week.

Larger districts really don’t have much choice but to go hybrid – they are just too large to meet the social distancing guidelines with every kid at school, said Kevin Casey, executive director of the New York State School Administrators Association.

“There are just no good answers,’ he said.

In districts with spare resources, hybrid schedules lay bare the problems of poverty, raising questions that have few answers: How can kids learn online when they have no computer or internet access? This is true for rural districts and the city of Syracuse.

The city has told 10,000 high school students they will learn from home; 10,000 more k-8 students will be online three days week. In the spring, parents scraped together money through Gofundme campaigns to get computers into some of the homes that had none. But there are still plenty of homes without.

And then there is the extra cost of childcare for low-wage parents with inflexible jobs, if they can find any to pay for.

“I’m definitely worried that our students are going to be really far behind where they should be,” said Beth Myers, an education professor and director of the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Education at Syracuse University.

Myers said that even if every student could get online, learning on a screen simply can’t provide what sitting in a room with a teacher does.

She knows that from her job and she knows it from her life: Myers and her husband have four children ages 4, 8, 10 and 12. They all go to public school in the city of Syracuse.

The grown-ups juggled their jobs and the kids’ schoolwork all spring from their home. Now it seems they’ll have to figure out how to have three kids at school some of the time and one 4-year-old home all of the time.

The city’s universal pre-k program they had planned to send their daughter to likely will not have enough space.

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” Myers said. The chaos of doing everything at once can be overwhelming. She may have to cut back on her research for now, but that’s nothing compared with the choices other families are grappling with, she said.

In the spring, Emily Costello and her husband cobbled together childcare for their twins using vacation time, flex-time, neighbors and family. Both parents have jobs that have to be done onsite: She is an occupational therapist and he services medical equipment.

But now that the economy is getting back into full-swing, many of their helpers are back to work. The grandparents who could help live in a state that has high infection rates right now. The twins, who are in the Jamesville-DeWitt district, will likely go to school two days a week.

Costello is happy they’ll get some school. They need face-to-face time with their teachers and to play with friends. But right now she has no idea what they’ll do for the other three days. It’s too long for kids their age to be home alone. But it’s hard to even look for care: At this point, Costello is not sure which days the kids will be home.

“I hope there’s a vaccine soon,” she said.

Bob Clary’s three kids go to three different schools in the North Syracuse school district, which is offering a hybrid plan that could put all of his kids at school on different days of the week. The child who is in elementary school will go two days a week. Clary’s other kids, who are in middle school and high school, will each go to school one day a week.

Clary can work from home on the days the kids are not at school. But that doesn’t solve his main concern.

“The fundamental thing is I’m not a teacher…so I am relearning everything all over,” he said.

Clary was trying to help his daughter, Stella, with her algebra in the spring. Like so many parents, he ended up watching the videos and tutorials right along with her. Algebra is hard enough. But Clary was trying to do it while he was doing his work for his marketing job.

“It’s very challenging to do my work at home while helping teach my kids,” Clary said.

Jennifer Czarniewicz has three children still in school – in 8th, 10th and 11th grades – in the North Syracuse district. They’ll be going to school one day a week; the rest will be online.

Although her kids are old enough to stay home alone, Czarniewicz said they were frustrated with online learning in the spring. She worries they’ll just give up.

“Getting some in-school instruction is better than nothing, but I’d like five days if they could make it safe,’' she said.

Parents and kids will both struggle and sacrifice in the fall, regardless of the school district. But poor families, often in inner city districts, are at great risk of losing learning and more in a hybrid school model.

“You’re seeing as you have throughout this crisis the exaggeration of the inequities that exist throughout society already,” said Paul Reville, the former Secretary of Education for Massachusetts and a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

A very real problem is getting enough technology into the hands of kids in poor districts. In Boston, the city was able to get funding for 30,000 Chrome books and it set up WiFi hotspots around the city.

The city of Syracuse has a plan to provide WiFi access from lightpoles on city streets, but that project is nowhere near done. Both computer and internet access problems remain.

Someone, Reville said, will have to step up to make sure kids have access to the technology the need. It doesn’t have to be the school district. It could be the city, the state or private business, he suggested.

“It’s a much bigger problem than just schools. Communities need to come together,” he said.

The city of Syracuse is also losing at least some of its robust pre-kindergarten program to the pandemic. Pre-k parents have not heard what their choices will be, if any at all.

Joann Taylor worries that her granddaughter, Amora, will fall behind. Amora is 3 and had been attending the city’s Montessori pre-k program, which is housed at LeMoyne College.

Amora has learned her letters and to write her name. Her grandmother credits the pre-k program. “It was awesome,” she said. And it was free, enabling Amora’s mom, Hillary, to work her call center job during the day.

Hillary has been working from home, but the job is not one that allows for multitasking.

Taylor and her husband, who are both disabled, have been watching Amora since the pre-k shut down.

Megan Thomas’ son and Amora are playmates at the school. Bailey Thomas-Barton would play and learn with Amora Taylor while his mom went to work as a lawyer.

If the pre-k does not open, Bailey’s dad will continue to care for him and his baby sister, Madeleine, while Thomas is at work.

Richard Barton decided to take a year off from his Phd studies at Cornell University, but he still has teaching obligations that he’ll have to work around the kids and his wife’s schedule.

Thomas knows they will be okay. But worries about what her son’s playmates are losing. Before she was a lawyer, she taught in cities with the Teach for America program.

“Kids make the most progress when you get them early. So getting these kids in school at a young age, it’s pivotal,” Thomas said. She hopes the city will be able to swing at least two days a week for pre-k.

Most districts, including Syracuse, are offering a completely online option for students this fall.

Some parents have decided that school is too risky. Others have decided it’s not worth the hassle for two days a week.

For Jessica Rogala, the risk does not seem worth it. She plans to keep her four school-aged children home.

Three attend Roberts School in Syracuse and one is supposed to go to Corcoran High School.

She works as a home-care nurse and worries that her kids will get exposed to the novel coronavirus and she’ll end up infecting one of her patients. Her husband is able to watch the kids and help them with their online learning, she said.

“I’d rather have my kids alive and behind a bit, academically,” she said.

April McCaslin, one many parents at East Syracuse Minoa who are choosing distance learning, said her daughter is immunocompromised. She is going into second grade and her other daughter is going into 7th grade.

“I feel like there are too many unknowns,’' she said. “We have been so careful since this all started.”

Though her younger daughter struggled with distance learning, McCaslin said the risks outweigh the benefits in her mind.

Lemir Teron, a professor at SUNY-ESF, has spent the past months studying the destructive path Covid-19 has cut through communities of color downstate.

Syracuse not been as hard-hit, but Teron worries fall will bring a surge. And he worries about the teachers and staff who have to go back to work, despite the risk.

“I hate the thought of lunch lady, lunch guy, taking the chances,” Teron said.

He and his wife, both former public school teachers, have decided to keep their boys home in the fall. He realizes everyone cannot afford to make that choice.

As parents try to figure out how to manage patched together schedules, teachers have been puzzling over how to make back-to-school as comfortable as possible in a pandemic, said Myers, the city school parent and Syracuse University education expert.

A teacher shared her plan with Myers: She was worried about not being able to hug the kids or hold their hands, especially in this time of fear and uncertainty. So she decided she would get a bear for each child and make a point of hugging the bears.

Then, when a child is sad or scared, the bear will be there snuggle, full of the teacher’s love.

©2020 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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