By: Chandra DeNap Whetstine
The sun is shining and my kids are playing outside. I can almost pretend that this summer break is normal — despite wearing masks and keeping our distance from other families — at least I could until I got an email from the Fairfax County Superintendent announcing tentative plans for reopening schools this fall. The email asks parents to make a quick decision for their children about school attendance, setting the stage for the Mommy Wars on steroids.
The next school year will look far from “normal.” Fairfax County is one of the country’s largest school districts with 189,000 kids, a district that was plagued by technical difficulties and less than stellar reviews of distance learning in the spring. The moment I saw the email, I was startled out of my summer break-induced complacency. I paused for just a moment to grieve what was to come; another year of missed milestones and opportunities and games and concerts and recitals. Another year of shoring up our children’s hearts and health. Another year of tough conversations and tough decisions.
Barring a spike in COVID-19 cases, the county will offer two options for elementary kids: distance learning involving online interaction with a teacher roughly three hours per day for four days a week or two-day per week in-person learning with extensive social distancing restrictions. There is a possibility my children would not even be placed at our neighborhood school. The urgency of this decision, due by July 10th, is further complicated by partisan politics and toxic divisions.
Our school district covers a huge swath of Northern Virginia and is diverse in race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class. Our experiences of the pandemic are equally diverse. In my zip code, only .5% of people have contracted COVID. Just five minutes from my house, 2.7% of the population has been infected. The Latinx community in the county register 60% of all cases, a number hugely disproportionate to their population. When we talk about school choices for the fall, we can not ignore these disparate experiences and the realities of life
I spend my days fighting toxic polarization at a non-profit called the One America Movement, and the patterns and behaviors rising out of this pandemic is a red flag for what is to come. Just as mask-wearing has become political, school decisions are poised to be the same. We are quick to make assumptions and judge others based on this decision. Parents who plan to send their children in-person are dubbed “selfish” while those that plan to keep their kids home are “too afraid.” Teachers who express concern about returning to the classroom are called “lazy” or “unreasonable.” Whatever choice you make seems to be a signal of not only your virtue but your politics, intelligence, and sense of justice.
Yet when it comes to our own choice, we know we are weighing a complex set of factors including the health of our children and family, special education needs, ability to telework, and access to technology. You might even consider expert guidance from the CDC or the American Academy of Pediatrics. We can’t let our membership in a political party, or who we plan on voting for in the fall, take a leading role in our choice.
This is a gut-wrenching decision and one I am privileged to even seriously contemplate. Too many children have conditions that preclude them from participating in in-person learning. Too many parents cannot afford to keep their children at home. And both options still leave families with an abundance of empty time to fill – a situation which is not only inconvenient but expensive, dangerous, and untenable for those who must find childcare in a pandemic.
The decision is too complex. We will continue to yell at each other because the stakes are so high and finding the right path forward seems impossible. We know that the health and safety of our own kids rely not just on our own decision — your decision will affect my kids too. My kids are safer when your children stay home. Your kids are safer when my children wear a mask. Defeating COVID is a group project, and we all just desperately want to get an A.