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Families Making Different Choices on In-Person Education

Many Chesterfield County elementary school students will return to in-person learning Monday--it’ll be their first time in school buildings since last November. The decisions on whether or not to keep their children learning virtually or have them attend face-to-face instruction was different for each family. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

When parent Ashley Henry watched the school board vote 4 to 1 to approve face-to-face instruction earlier this month, the decision to send her second grader back to Grange Hall Elementary School in Moseley was a no-brainer.

“I feel totally confident. And I think part of the reason I feel that way is because we've been in a daycare setting essentially, since March of last year. And you know, so far, so good -- knock on wood,” Henry says.

Henry is a nurse, her husband is a first responder. They have two children, and their youngest son goes to a private kindergarten at a learning center. When Chesterfield schools reverted from hybrid classes to all virtual back in November due to a rapid increase in positive COVID-19 cases, her older son, a seven year old, joined the same learning center to do his online classes.

“Our boys have been in a daycare setting since school was out last year,” Henry says.
“And so the virtual learning program really did afford us an opportunity to give him a more structured environment than he probably would have gotten going into somebody's house or what have you. So that's been really good.”

Henry says her second grader thrived under the hybrid class schedule, which saw students going to in-person classes two days a week. She says he did really well in the beginning, adjusting to the changes in his schedule, going from hybrid back to all virtual. But as time wore on, she says they were at their wits end. Her son was losing interest and found it hard to concentrate. 

“My son in particular just does not excel with virtual learning. It's not the way that he learns best,” she says. “And I think the longer that this has gone on, you know, the more impactful it has been on him, from an educational standpoint.”

But Henry also stresses that the choice to send children back to school buildings or keep them learning virtually, is strictly up to families.

“I don't pretend that I know how other people should feel about all of this. But I think at least we're being given the choice,” Henry says. 

Parent Amanda Carriker Moore says she’s also happy having a choice--but for different reasons.

“Honestly, I think that the decision [to send children back to in-person] is crazy, not to sugarcoat it,” Moore says. “It's very convenient that they [the school board] picked what was helpful for them to open. But at the same time, I'm glad they have a choice. What if they didn't allow virtual? You know, that's why I think it's fantastic to have a choice for our family, but I don't think it's safe for anyone.”

Moore, who runs the non-profit Humans for Good, has three children, and two  attend Old Hundred Elementary. She says the school board’s decision to return children to in-person learning, and their reasoning around it, struck the wrong chord with her.

“I did not like having the school board come out and say that they were making this decision based on the needs of those lower income families. It's just, that's just not the case,” Moore says.

There are 39 elementary schools in the county. Out of that 39, 18 have more than 50% of students choosing to remain virtually, and 21 have more than half returning to in-person classes.

Chesterfield County has 20 elementary schools that are Title 1 schools. Those schools receive funds based on the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Most of their students will remain in virtual classes; only 6 of the 20 schools will have majority in-person education.

According to officials, 13,896 elementary students from across the district will be going back to school buildings on Monday. 

Moore says it was “very convenient” for the school board and the district to pick what information was helpful for them to open. She believes that there may have been political reasons for the decision to be made.

“It's not based on facts or science. They kept quoting this Harvard study which in fact, isn't a study at all, it was a culmination of different conclusions, one of which was from the head of ethics for Harvard,” Moore says. “But I don't want the person in charge of the ethics department making the decisions that an epidemiologist should be making.”

But Ashley Henry says she’s confident in the district’s planning, even though she’s seen the effects of COVID-19 up close as a nurse.

“I completely trust our school and our principal and our teachers to do the very best job that they can,” she says.

Henry says she finds the data on sending students back to face-to-face instruction reassuring. At that school board meeting, officials cited guidance from a multi-disciplinary group that includes ethicists and public health experts that says “with the right controls in place, schools can even maintain lower infection rates than the community.” 

“I think at this point, the benefits far outweigh the risks,” she says. “Kids are resilient, they catch on. And, you know, you just have to kind of trust at this point that everything is going to be okay. So take the appropriate measures to do as much as you can to mitigate the risk.”

As for her second grader, Henry says he’s ecstatic to go back to see his teacher and friends in person and to even do something as trivial as eat in the cafeteria. And, he’ll be prepared with masks--lots of masks.

“We have all the superhero masks, we have football masks, we have a whole arsenal of masks. They have extra masks in their book bags,” she says. “And they've been having to wear a mask, both in kindergarten and virtual learning. So it's second nature to them at this point.”

It’ll be different for Amanda Moore’s kids come Monday. Her daughter has to start the new semester with a new teacher. 

“I did feel really terrible. My second grader, she absolutely loved love, loved her teacher. She was very upset,” Moore says. She adds, it broke her heart to see her daughter spend her last day with her regular teacher. 

“But, you know, we keep saying to them ever since this started that we have to make the best decisions, not not just for us, but for our neighbors and for our grandparents and the people around us,” Moore says. “And thankfully, I have the ability to be home and work from home and oversee them being virtual. But I mean, it all sucks.”

Moore also says schools should wait to reopen until there’s more data that truly shows if schools are safe--especially now that there are new variant strains of the coronavirus floating around, like the one recently discovered in South Carolina. 

Starting Monday, school doors will reopen for many elementary students in Chesterfield. Later in the month, the school board will decide when it’s OK for middle and high school students to do the same.


Ian M. Stewart previously was the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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