What’s the right decision for reopening Delaware schools? Depends on who you ask. | #students | #parents

Samantha Maloney-Gracie fears her daughter and teachers are being used as guinea pigs if school buildings reopen in the fall. 

John Laznik has accepted the risk that his children could get sick, but after looking at the data, is confident that healthy children like his won’t die. 

Tom Ciafardo wonders if the governor is letting malls, restaurants and gyms reopen under certain guidelines, why shouldn’t schools do the same? 

All three Delaware parents are awaiting the state and Gov. John Carney’s decision about if their children will be in school this fall — and all three have different outlooks, expectations and concerns about what that might bring. 

It reflects the growing tension among parents and teachers everywhere surrounding the decision. 

In Delaware, the state released guidance for school districts last week, offering health and safety requirements, as well as how schools should plan for three different learning scenarios: fully in-person, fully remote, or a hybrid of the two. But plans still hang in limbo, as school leaders await directives from the state, expected to be released in early August. 

K-12 REOPENING: Delaware releases guidance for reopening schools, if students return

So far, only one school — EastSide Charter in Wilmington — has committed to a learning plan: in-person instruction for kindergarten through third grade, and virtual school for grades 4-8, with plans to go fully remote if required by the state. 

Whether and how to reopen schools is the “most difficult and most important decision” the state faces in the COVID-19 pandemic, Carney said last week. And across the country, teachers, parents and officials all have different ideas of what the fall semester should look like. 

“I think everyone is being diligent in trying to come up with a great plan for everyone, but I just don’t know if that’s possible,” Maloney-Gracie said. “There are so many people, with so many different circumstances. I don’t know how it’s going to work, and that is a big unknown which concerns us all.”

Calculating student risk

If the state does decide to open school buildings in the fall, many parents are still wondering if it will be safe to send their children.

What should be a simple question now triggers an unending loop of mental gymnastics and risk calculations. 

Some parents, like Heather Deschambeau, worry that the quality of remote learning will set their children back academically. While parents seemed more forgiving of the spring semester, teachers and administrators say they’re feeling mounted pressure to have more rigorous remote learning plans should the situation arise in the fall. 

Ciafardo, who has sons in Delaware and New Jersey schools, is concerned for his sons’ mental health if schools don’t reopen. 

But then there are questions about health as well. What happens if a student or teacher tests positive? Would a single class, or the entire school need to quarantine? The state’s 34-page guidance document leaves these questions largely unanswered. And what if students aren’t practicing social distancing out of school? Or if parents refuse to have their children wear masks? 

And, if schools do open, what happens to the students and teachers who are medically vulnerable, or live with someone who is at a high risk? 

With health problems of her own, Maloney-Gracie is at a high risk of contracting COVID-19. But she wants her daughter to have as many senior year experiences as she can at Cape Henlopen High School, without fear of bringing the coronavirus home. 

Because of this, Maloney-Gracie will likely move in with her mother and aunt if her daughter returns to school, she said.

“We’re fortunate to be able to do that, but I’m sure there are lots of families who can’t,” she said. “Kids who have medically fragile siblings, or live with grandparents. That concerns me.” 

Laznik respects the wishes of parents who decide not to send their children to school and thinks schools should offer flexible options for those with underlying health conditions. 

But to Laznik, the numbers are clear — it’s safe for his children to attend classes at Newark Charter in person, where they can receive a better education than if they were remote. 

EXPERT LOOK: How severe is COVID-19 in Delaware now? Experts weigh in

In Delaware, no one under 18 has died of the coronavirus, according to the state’s data dashboard. 

Of the 13,373 positive cases in the state as of Friday, 879 have been under 18 — or 6% of cases.

BY THE NUMBERS: Tracking coronavirus cases in Delaware

“If the kids are testing positive, that’s fine, they’re going to fight this virus,” Laznik said. “They’re healthy. But they are not going to pass away in my opinion, being that there have been no deaths in three months in that age group. I accept that risk.”

‘Literally just don’t have a plan’

Over the past week, school districts across the country have one by one unveiled plans for the fall, creating a patchwork of remote, hybrid and in-person strategies. 

In Delaware, administrators are left trying to figure things out on their own. 

“We literally just don’t have a plan yet,” one charter school administrator said. “If we had a plan we would have told parents and teachers.” 

“When we even begin to talk about what it would look like, we have more questions than answers,” another administrator said. “What if kids are fighting? Or refuse to wear their masks? Is there protocol for that? We don’t want to punish them, but it’s a matter of safety. We have to find some way to enforce it.”

The News Journal withheld the identities of the administrators because their schools do not allow them to speak publicly about their opinions about reopening. 

Teachers unions in other states are leading the charge against in-person instruction for the fall. In neighboring Maryland, unions and parent-teacher associations are calling for a virtual-only start to the school year. Massachusetts unions have asked for a phased reopening, much like the business community has seen. 

Members of the Delaware State Educators Association – the state’s teachers union – have had a role in crafting the state’s guidance. For teachers and students to stay safe, they say, school districts must strictly follow the guidance. 

“If the districts believe they can move forward, plans can be made to reopen schools,” union president Stephanie Ingram said in a statement “However, if there is even the slightest doubt, the districts need to start the school year in a remote learning environment and continue until they can follow this guidance.” 

Already, some fearful teachers have shared stories of preparing their wills in anticipation of the fall. 

For others, instead of stockpiling school supplies, they’re buying cleaning supplies – and having a hard time finding it. In New Jersey, teachers compiled a list of 382 questions, covering topics like cleaning protocols, social distancing, the status of HVAC systems, and more.  

“There’s people who go to work at a grocery store every day and they encounter people all day long,” said Tom Gears, a teacher at Delcastle High School. “If they can do it, I can do it, but I need to make sure the safeguards are in place.” 

Logistically though, he doesn’t know if schools are capable of meeting every requirement. Normally, kids are shoulder to shoulder when switching classes in the hallways, he said. Administrators also fear they won’t be able to meet social distancing standards in classrooms and buses that have been overcrowded for years. 

“I want nothing more than for all of our students to be back in our buildings safely learning,” an administrator said. “I don’t think it’s a question of who wants schools open and who doesn’t. Everyone wants schools open. It’s a question of who’s willing to have children die just to open them? And I’m not one of those people.”

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com.


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