Denton mom Tina Bennett likened last spring’s semester to a skirmish. After the coronavirus pandemic forced people into isolation, she would work her IT job from home while her two sons did their best to adjust to virtual learning.
Her younger son, Koda, had an especially tough time.
“It became a battle. Like I’m supposed to be working, and he’s like, ‘Mom, I don’t want to do this work,’” she said. “I was relegated to being the mom and the teacher and the whatever you needed at the time.”
Some teachers say they’re uncomfortable going back to the classroom because of COVID-19 safety risks, but many parents are ready for their kids to return. Meanwhile, health experts believe that prolonged online learning is detrimental to children’s development, especially for those with learning disabilities.
As the fall semester approaches, North Texas districts are floundering to figure out when, and how, to safely start school amid the coronavirus pandemic. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said it should be up to each locality to decide, according to Reuters.
In July, the Denton ISD board of trustees voted to delay its school year’s start to better prepare. Superintendent Jamie Wilson said in a YouTube video that the majority of parents and teachers wanted to return to the classroom.
“All the research tells us that’s the best way students learn,” he said.
The virtual setting has seemed to help some kids’ concentration, though.
Bennett said her older son, Kory, excelled during the spring semester, even making straight-As for the first time. The 18-year-old has ADHD, so Bennett said he was less distracted at home, and it was easier for him to concentrate on his course work.
But Koda, 10, has dyslexia, so it was harder for him to adapt to online learning, Bennett said. Not only that, but the sudden social isolation was difficult for him to cope with.
“He’s an angry little boy when he’s not being social,” she said with a laugh. "He’s a kid but he takes on these adult-like 'cranky-isms.'”
Both boys have opted to attend in-person classes this fall and are excited to see their friends again, Bennett said. Face-to-face instruction will resume Sept. 8 per Denton County health officials' recommendations.
In late July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance stressing the importance of in-person learning. Schools benefit kids in myriad ways, be it through providing education, nutrition or an outlet for exercise.
The CDC also emphasized the effects schools have on children’s social and emotional development. In such an environment, students feel connected and safe, which is associated with lower levels of depression, social anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
Carrollton psychiatrist Dr. Nishendu Vasavada said in-person learning is particularly important for kids with learning and developmental disabilities. The daily class structure, as well as the quality of interaction, is typically much better in the classroom than through a computer screen, he said.
Still, he added, one has to consider the pandemic.
“It’s a balancing act, because there are teachers who are high-risk and their needs are to be considered,” Vasavada said. “I think the important thing is to teach the children that it’s their responsibility to wear a mask and be safe and keep others safe.”
At the pandemic’s outset, many health experts believed children were unlikely to contract COVID-19 or transmit it to others. Yet The New York Times reported Thursday that children may carry the virus at higher levels than previously believed.
School officials in Dallas County delayed in-person classes in an effort to slow coronavirus spread. Last week, however, state authorities indicated that schools may be penalized if they remain closed for longer than the Texas Education Agency allows.
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Tuesday, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued non-binding legal guidance stating that local health authorities cannot deliver sweeping mandates to shutter schools on a preventative basis. After that, the TEA announced that districts remaining closed past the state's guidelines may lose funding, even if health officials had issued closure orders, according to the Houston Chronicle.
For every school that reopens to in-person learning, Vasavada said that face shields and masks should be worn in combination. That way, the risk factor of transmitting coronavirus in school drops dramatically.
Children do need to get back to the structure of their classes and electives, he said.
“But if it’s a question of people’s lives then, you know, that’s something that has to wait, unfortunately,” Vasavada said.