Parents face weighty decision on school

Julie Sherwood,Victoria E. Freile
Messenger Post Media and Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Empty, idle school buses are seen parked outside the Naples Central School elementary building on Academy Street in Naples. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to announce this week whether schools can open next month for on-site instruction. The governor said the final decision rests with parents on whether they will send their kids to school.

Childcare provider Jennifer Ford doesn’t plan to send her children to school if her district begins on-site instruction next month.

A daycare provider for nearly 15 years, Ford knows first-hand how quickly illness can spread. She also knows how parents sometimes deal with dilemmas in trying to balance work and family. That can lead to children coming to school sick, as parents won’t miss work and don’t have a backup plan, as well as procedures that are supposed to be followed at home — in the case of COVID-19, taking temperatures among other possible measures — being neglected.

“They say it will be the responsibility of parents to check (their children). How many will actually check temperatures before going to work?” she said. “How many will follow the rules?”

Ford and her husband Jason, who live in Bristol, have three children in the Bloomfield Central School District: Johanna, 16; Tanner, 12; and Tucker, 10. Their oldest son, Hunter, 23, is a college student living in Buffalo. “We have been extremely careful,” said Jennifer, referring to social distancing and wearing masks, among other protections. Her childcare business, temporarily closed while she heals from a broken ankle, she hopes to eventually reopen — all dependent on the health of her family and the community.

The thought of Johanna missing her senior year at school makes her sad. It was already difficult for her daughter, who is very active in school activities, to lose the last months of her junior year when schools closed in March due to COVID-19. Jennifer is concerned about Tanner and Tucker, too, who each benefit from special programs offered through the district. But she sees the health risk as too great.

Decision time

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will decide this week on whether to allow schools to open next month. The governor and state Education Department are weighing reopening plans that most school districts submitted last week. Many plans offer a mix of remote and on-site instruction. Cuomo said the final decision rests with parents on whether they will send their kids to school.

‘No-win situation’

Valerie Clements of Chili has five daughters, the oldest three in college and the youngest two in public school. She sees concerns no matter what parents decide to do — no ideal plan for families or school districts.

“It’s a no-win situation,” said Clements, who has one daughter set to enter kindergarten and the other, 10th grade.

“My 15-year-old excelled with remote learning in the spring, so I’m OK with whatever decision we make for her schooling, be it in person or 100% virtual learning,” said Clements. “But my kindergartener … she’s not able to wear a mask all day, as I’m sure she would need to. She struggles wearing one while waiting in a line for even a few minutes.”

While still waiting for directives from the state and Gates Chili Central School District last month, Clements said she is leaning toward simply scrapping the upcoming academic year for her youngest child and delaying the start of her formal education until 2021. She’s excited to start school, but also understands that everything is different currently because of COVID-19, Clements said.

“It makes me sad for her that she won’t have the same experience starting school as her sisters did,” Clements said. “But do I expose her? If she studies virtually, how do I get her to sit down to do schoolwork? I struggle to get her to sit down and eat dinner. I don’t know what the right decision is.”

Parents will be unhappy with the district’s final decision, she predicts. “It’s a no-win situation.”

For Jodi Simons Caruso and her husband, Mark Caruso, planning to open a cafe this month in Naples, their decision about school came quickly. Their two youngest children, Willow, 14, and River, 12, are students at Naples Central School.

“It’s a scary time,” said Jodi, who is doing everything possible to keep the coronavirus at bay with their health and a new business at stake. Just the possibility of having to quarantine could shutter the business for good.

Thinking of the school experience for her kids, Jodi said that with all the restrictions schools will have to follow to operate safely, taking into account social distancing, wearing masks and so forth, she thinks the on-site experience will be stressful.

“I know my kids can manage school at home, with less emotional issues than at the school,” she said.

Siobhan Fisher, a self-employed photographer with two daughters in the Rochester City School District, has similar concerns. Fisher plans to choose a remote learning option for her girls, who are about to enter first and eighth grades. Fisher said she cannot afford for her family to quarantine if her children are exposed to the virus. If that would occur, she would lose two weeks of pay and employment.

“I’d love to have them back in school,” she said. “But as a single working parent, I need to opt for a remote learning option so we can control who they come into contact with. Sending them back for even two days a week is way too much of a risk for me right now.”

Using whatever curriculum the district provides, Fisher plans to coordinate with other parents to co-teach their children in their homes. She’s working to coordinate with fellow parents of School of the Arts students to create a learning pod for her older daughter. She’s also coordinating with three families — all who have rising first-graders in different school districts and all already families Fisher and her daughters are interacting with — to oversee their childrens’ remote education. The families plan to rotate the lessons between their homes so all parents can also continue to work.

“Neither of my children did particularly well with remote learning,” Fisher said. “But we are willing to give it another chance and will take it from there.”

“I understand why some parents do want their children to return to school,” she said. “More power to you if you feel safe doing this. I do not.”

Back against the wall

Yasmin Mattox of Penfield, the mother of three girls including two elementary students at Webster’s Plank South Elementary School, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by Webster Central School District’s proposed plan for the upcoming school year.

Under the plan, elementary students have the option to attend class in person for half-days on weekdays.

“I can’t imagine how hard it was for the superintendent and involved faculty to figure out the logistics of the plan while striving to fulfil students’ and parents’ needs,” she said.

Mattox, who is self-employed and has been working from home since March, said she plans to send her 7-year-old and 5-year-old to school in the fall, but that could change if the Rochester region experiences an increase In COVID-19 cases. “Considering how plain bonkers 2020 has been, we are cautiously optimistic,” she said. “But we know that it can all change in a moment.”

Mattox said she felt it was important for her daughters to attend school not only for in-person instruction, but for the girls’ mental health, which includes their ability to socialize regularly with their classmates.

“We put a premium on mental health, especially our children’s mental health,” she said. “The best way we know to address that is to send them back to school. We’re fortunate and mindful that none of our children are high-risk medically speaking…but we’re also mindful about abiding by public health precautions.”

“We’re as happy as you can be given that your back is against the wall,” she said. “And of course I am still concerned about what contingencies will be in place if there is an uptick in cases or the risk of another potential shutdown.”

Kate Benz of Irondequoit is thrilled with the school plan West Irondequoit Central School District has proposed for elementary students. The plan, like all school plans that have yet to be approved by the state, includes four days of in-person education and one day of remote learning each week.

“I’m so relieved,” she said, adding she plans to send her rising second-grader back to Seneca Elementary School in September. “My son sees specialists at the school and having him attend will allow him to best utilize those services.”

Benz also plans to send her 3-year-old daughter to pre-school five days a week starting this fall.

“We’ve been talking about the virus since March, about using masks, social distancing, respecting each other’s boundaries,” Benz said. “Yes, it is tough, But kids are so flexible and resilient. We as adults are struggling more.”

Benz said she understands why so many parents are conflicted on planning for the upcoming academic year, but noted that educators have put much consideration into the proposed plan.

“For teachers to return and to accommodate our children…teachers are in the classroom because they want to be there and they love our children just as much as we do,” she said.

Some members of the Simons Caruso family are seen together as the COVID-19 pandemic has created new restrictions on socializing outside home, and some families like the Carusos are spending more time together. From left, Sequoia Simons Folts; Willow Simons Caruso; River Simons Caruso; Mark Caruso; and Jodi Simons Caruso in back.