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How Some Districts Are Trying To Get Anxious Families Back Into School Buildings

After losing several family members to COVID-19, Paullette Healy says she isn't ready to send her son back into classrooms this fall.
After losing several family members to COVID-19, Paullette Healy says she isn't ready to send her son back into classrooms this fall.

Paullette Healy isn't sure yet where her 13-year-old son, Lucas, will go to school this fall.

She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and says New York City school buildings are in "disarray," with overcrowded classrooms and windows that barely open. She worries about classroom ventilation and social distancing.

The city has announced it will not offer a remote learning option in the coming school year. In a statement to NPR, a NYC schools spokesperson said the district's buildings are "some of the safest places to be during the pandemic," adding that classroom ventilation systems are fully operational.

But Healy isn't convinced.

"It serves no purpose for [the district] to tell us that the schools are safe when we have lost parents and families to COVID during this time," she explains. "To be forced to send your child into a building that you know is not safe — that feels like a death sentence."

For Healy and her family, the back-to-school season comes at the end of a year marked by grief. Last August, Lucas lost his great-aunt to COVID-19 — she was the first of several family members to die from the disease.

Lucas is fully vaccinated, but just the thought of sending her son to in-person classes raises Healy's stress levels.

"Whenever we hear of another friend or another family member who has contracted COVID, it's kind of a coldness that goes across us all," Healy explains.

Paullette Healy holds a memorial photo of her aunt MaryAnne Doyle, who died from COVID-19 in August 2020.
/ Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for NPR
Paullette Healy holds a memorial photo of her aunt MaryAnne Doyle, who died from COVID-19 in August 2020.

This summer, parents across the country are weighing whether to send their children back to in-person school. Some are anxious about old ventilation systems and how well schools will enforce social distancing. Many parents of younger students are concerned because their children can't be vaccinated yet.

School leaders, meanwhile, are desperate to get students back. They're worried those who stay home will miss out on important social-emotional and academic development. In some states, low, in-person enrollment can also put a school's funding at risk.

Now, some districts are getting creative to try to win back the trust of hesitant families like Healy's.

A Texas superintendent goes knocking on doors

In Texas, for example, Stephanie Elizalde, head of the Austin Independent School District, has been going door-to-door this summer, trying to get residents with school-aged children to register for fall in-person classes.

When parents ask what school is going to look like in the fall, Elizalde says she shows them video clips on her phone of the classroom set-up. "We're able to actually show parents, and have the conversation right then and there," she explains.

Austin ISD will not offer families a remote option this fall, after Texas lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have funded virtual instruction. Texas has also banned mask mandates, including in public schools. That means Elizalde can't require masks in classrooms, which she says has increased anxiety among some parents — and she respects those concerns.

"The first thing is to acknowledge that while we will always do our very, very best, we also cannot take this lightly and just say, 'Oh don't worry, everything is going to be just fine,' " she explains.

Over the past year, the nation's Black and Latino communities have seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection. And a new survey from the RAND Corporation found Black and Latino families are also more hesitant to send their children back to in-person school.

Those numbers are in line with what Elizalde has seen in her district. Fifty-five percent of Austin ISD students are Latino, and she says many of their parents are worried about the possibility of children exposing older relatives to the virus.

"We tend to be multi-generational in our homes," explains Elizalde, who is herself Latina. "It's a very complex kind of anxiety for our families."

She uses her visits with parents to talk through their concerns — about students taking off masks to eat lunch, or crowding on the school bus. Then she works with families and their school to try to find a solution.

A rock and a hard place doesn't even begin to describe how I feel.

Elizalde says building trust begins with one-on-one relationships and organic, unscripted conversations. She understands some families may not be ready to send children back — but with no remote learning option, Austin schools need students in their classrooms. In Texas, state funding for schools is tied, in part, to attendance. Poor attendance could lead to less money, Elizalde says, and that could lead to layoffs.

"A rock and a hard place doesn't even begin to describe how I feel."

Summer programs lay the groundwork for the fall

Teffannie J. Hale's two daughters are the third generation of her family to enroll in Cleveland public schools. This summer, Hale is one of 19 parent ambassadors the district hired to act as liaisons between schools and families.

As an ambassador, she spends time talking to parents at the district's summer programs, answering their questions about summer learning and the new school year. Three days a week, she also fields phone calls from parents and caregivers.

She says when families ask about the safety of in-person programs, she tells them about the school secretary who requires everyone to practice social distancing and wear a mask.

"T​​hat first encounter with her makes me feel safe," Hale tells families.

Tracy Hill, the executive director of family and community engagement at Cleveland Metropolitan Schools, says she hopes these conversations lay the groundwork for caregivers to feel more comfortable sending kids back to classrooms in the fall.

"We do have families and students who are still a little hesitant about returning back to the in-person experience," Hill says. "These ambassadors ... are connecting with them and sharing their stories and relaying [to the district] whatever feelings of apprehension they might have."

District leaders in Portland, Ore., are taking a similar approach. Jonathan Garcia, chief of staff for the city's public schools, says summer programs offer students and families a chance to "dip their toes into the unknown."

I try to shield my kids, but I don't believe that we're designed to be in isolation.

This year, the district asked local community groups to host day camps to help families ease into in-person learning.

"When families are able to see the people they know coming back to the in-person normal, you start to build that sense of 'We got this. We're moving forward together,' " Garcia explains.

Hale, in Cleveland, says she understands why families might hesitate to send their children into classrooms. Her fiancé was hospitalized with COVID-19 earlier this year, and she says remote learning made her feel like she had control over her daughters' safety. But she knew her children needed to have a normal life again. In June, she decided to send her oldest, 10-year-old London, back to her school's campus for a summer program.

"I try to shield my kids, but I don't believe that we're designed to be in isolation," Hale says.

One big reason Hale felt comfortable sending her daughter back was because she trusted her school district. She says Cleveland schools regularly communicated with families throughout the pandemic, through social media, mail and voice calls.

"Because of the level of communication," Hale says, "I'm choosing to keep my kids in-person [in the fall]."

Healy sits with her 13-year-old son, Lucas, in their Brooklyn backyard while he receives remote instruction.
/ Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for NPR
Healy sits with her 13-year-old son, Lucas, in their Brooklyn backyard while he receives remote instruction.

In-person public school versus remote private school

Back in New York, Healy says communication was one way her district fell short, adding uncertainty and frustration to an already challenging year.

Healy is still weighing where to send Lucas this fall. She's collecting enrollment pamphlets from private schools that, unlike New York City public schools, are offering a remote option.

She says she's holding out hope that the city will change its mind about remote learning before the school year begins. If it doesn't? "I very well see myself pulling my child out of public schools."

Sneha Dey is an intern on NPR's Education Desk.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.