RALEIGH — As many families across the state kick off the new school year this week, they face a patchwork school reopening models put forth after a summer of uncertainty and frequent second guessing by public officials. The Wall Street Journal reported that in a recent poll of 1,341 families, more than one-third of parents with children ages three to 17 said they are “not at all” comfortable with a return to school this fall. Similarly, in a new Axios-Ipsos poll of 219 parents of children 18 and under, 71% said they felt sending them back to school presented a moderate or large risk to their household’s health and well-being. Even so, parents raising school age children amidst the current health crisis are recognizing in droves that despite social distancing mandates, their kids need some form of group instruction among peers roughly their age.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening schools place a heavy emphasis on getting students back into the classroom pointing out the severe social, emotional and mental risks of keeping kids at home any longer. One local Raleigh father, who wished to remain anonymous, says his daughter, a rising third grader who is an only child, absolutely needs to learn among a group of kids her same age for fear the longer-term isolation of not going back to school could do permanent psychological damage.
As a result, alternative school programs have seen enrollment numbers skyrocket heading into the upcoming semester. Participants include parents who are still wary of sending their children back into possibly infected classrooms, socioeconomic situations where two-income parents don’t have the luxury of working from home for fear of risking their jobs, or families dealing with the fact that many school districts, such as Wake County, are simply not offering in-person instruction until further notice.
In N.C., nearly two-thirds of local school districts began the new year offering remote only learning for students. Although officials recently announced they hope to begin bringing back students by late October or early November, many families have gone ahead and opted into a full year of virtual learning because they value predictability and control over their schedules.
Other parents say while they will definitely take advantage of returning to in-person instruction whenever it is available, for now they are joining learning pods along with several other families. Parents are adapting to pods or “socially distanced learning centers,” in an effort to replace or supplement in-person instruction. These micro-schools are either self-coordinated by individuals or through community-based groups and public/private partnerships, such as the one formed between the YMCA and WakeEd Partnership.
“We decided to “pod up” in order to lessen the burden of this virtual learning on some of the families we know,” says Sara Perdue, a Raleigh-area mother of two. “We were lucky enough to find a proctor by word of mouth but if we hadn’t, each parent was going to be responsible for teaching a full day of school to a group of seven kids each week.”
Perdue joined forces with four other families who all attend the same school and are in grades ranging 1st-3rd. The proctor will help the kids follow their daily curriculum as assigned by Wake County School Public Schools. Perdue says she also has heard of parents who found similar set ups through message boards on sites like Care.com and Facebook.
On a local level, the YMCA of the Triangle is among the many groups offering distanced learning for Wake County students in the form of its Scholastic Support Centers. The YMCA is part of a new initiative known as Families and Schools Together (FAST), which also includes WakeEd Partnership, Marbles Kids Museum, Boys & Girls Clubs Serving Wake County, and the City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department, among other groups throughout the county.
Small classes of students in groups of 10 will be grouped in quiet rooms for study and remote learning time. When online school is complete, students will have time for homework or structured, age-appropriate academic enrichment activities. Wi-Fi is provided at every location to support video chats, streaming media and other online school demands. The program is offered Monday – Friday 8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. with an extended day option for those who need full-day care. FAST is geared toward families of non-school employees but the district is providing childcare for children of school employees in grades K-6.
“This academic year will be completely different for educators, students and parents,” says Kim Keith, YMCA of the Triangle Vice President of Youth Development. “That’s why we’ve collaborated with local school systems to develop programs that align with educational requirements and also support out-of-school time and childcare needs. Scholastic Support Centers are a place where students can go to participate in their online school or Virtual Academy classes.”
“Remote learning is a community-wide challenge and it requires a broad community-based solution,” says Keith Poston, president of WakeEd Partnership.” While we work toward bringing our students and teachers back together safely in classrooms, we know working parents need support while their children are not in school. This initiative was developed both to facilitate learning for students and to support our families and the local economy that rely on parents working.”
Even as pods become a popular alternative to in-person instruction this school year, a growing number of parents still worry the concept is creating divisions that favor families with more resources and that some kids will receive a better education overall. Some local parents say they’ve come across groups that are charging anywhere from $10-$30 dollars per day, with the “school day” lasting from anywhere from two-five hours.