When schools around the country closed their buildings in the spring in response to a growing pandemic, Leah Mallace, like many parents, assumed they would reopen them again in the fall.
But now the Brevard County, Fla., mother is part of an organized effort to keep her districts’ buildings closed as her state deals with climbing rates of coronavirus cases that have drawn national concern.
“At the time, I think what a lot of people thought was we were being proactive,” she said of the nationwide closures to contain the virus. “We were going to get this taken care of, and we would be good to go when fall comes around. … Just really the last three weeks for me, I started thinking this time is ticking really quickly and our numbers are growing exponentially. We are constantly breaking our own records.”
As districts around the country wrestle with high-stakes decisions of when and how to reopen, they’ve felt the influence of parents like Mallace.
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“This is one of those things where I would call [school administrators] every day if I have to,” said Lindsey Nathaniel, a mother of two in Virginia Beach, Va. She’s part of a parents’ group that wants schools there to remain closed until they see consistently declining virus rates.
Parents on all sides of the debate—those calling for school buildings to open, those who want them to remain closed, and those pushing for more robust online learning options—quickly organized in places like Facebook and online message boards.
Some who’ve never engaged with their school boards before have participated in marathon Zoom meetings, started letter-writing campaigns, and conducted pandemic-friendly protests like “honkathons” that allow participants to stay safely inside their cars as they make noise outside of school administration buildings.
Mallace’s Facebook group, which she formed with a friend earlier this month, gained 800 followers in three days. It now has nearly 1,500 members.
How districts engage with the concerns of parents may be as important as the policies they set for reopening. That’s because an unprecedented school year will require an unprecedented level of trust and cooperation from families.
If school buildings remain open, families will play an important role in helping students adapt to new norms, like wearing masks. If a student tests positive with COVID-19, parents may have to quickly adjust their schedules to accommodate sudden shutdowns and quarantines. And remote learning requires a rewiring of the relationship between schools and families—calling on parents to help keep their children engaged and on-track outside of the classroom.
Adding to the high-wire act: Some parents didn’t trust their schools much before the pandemic, said Soo Hong, an education professor at Wellesley College who studies school-community relationships. This moment may serve to intensify parents’ preexisting feelings about their school systems—drawing intense emotions as administrators make decisions that could affect their health, family life, and livelihoods.
“I think schools are kind of falling back on the ways that we have routinely and universally interacted with families, which is to tell them what we need them to do,” Hong said. “Family engagement in schools is usually directed at what schools want and to be able to communicate that out to families and to have families fall in line and follow.”
For many school systems, engagement came in the form of parent surveys that asked about their preferences for issues like distance learning, in-person instruction, and transportation. Sometimes those surveys gave families binary choices, and their results may not have meaningfully reflected the array of concerns carried by parents from different racial and ethnic background and income levels, Hong said.
“I think parents and caregivers are wise enough to know when policy decisions are developed and implemented, they are wise enough to know whether that is based on comprehensive feedback from the community,” she said.
For Desiré Smith, providing meaningful feedback meant circulating petitions, emailing school board members of her Henderson, Ky., district, holding rallies where student athletes sang their school fight song, hanging 2,000 door hangers with information about reopening, and drafting her own proposal for what distance learning should look like.
Initially, Smith pushed for schools to stay open. Over time, her position shifted to a call for “parent choice” that includes in-person options and stronger remote learning offerings than the district provided in the spring.
“If they are not going to hear me, they are going to see me,” Smith said. “They are going to see that I am here and that I am not going to go away.”
School board member Kirk Haynes met with Smith and explained his concerns about some of her recommendations. Smith said the meeting was discouraging, but she also appreciated that Haynes engaged her ideas rather than just dismissing them. She refined her proposals—calling for video lessons and more engaging online offerings instead of insisting on synchronous instruction, which presented concerns for some teachers.
Henderson schools plan to start with a delayed first day Aug. 26, offering in-person and remote options.
“The decision a school board makes directly affects 10,000 people and their family units,” Haynes said, totaling up the district’s employees and students. “In our county, I call our school district the cement of the community. We bring everyone together.”
While there have been some tensions, Haynes has been encouraged to see parents so engaged with school governance.
“I’ve encouraged them, ‘Please don’t up and go away with all of your involvement,” he said.
Some school administrators have anticipated these tough decisions since they first closed their buildings. Some have held virtual meetings, sent weekly updates to parents about their evolving plans and understanding of the virus, and sought feedback throughout the spring and summer. National task forces released model reopening plans. Researchers weighed in on essential protocols.
But those plans have been scrambled in the last month, said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who helped lead a task force of former educators on school reopenings.
Virus rates spiked throughout the South, and teachers’ unions and education groups pushed for more federal funding to help schools dealing with an economic crisis. President Donald Trump threw partisan fuel on the fire when he launched an aggressive push to reopen schools, repeatedly threatening their funding if they keep buildings closed.
Early signs of concern could be seen in June, Bailey said, when surveys showed growing numbers of parents were reluctant to send their children back. In a July 22 Associated Press-NORC poll, about 3 in 10 respondents said children shouldn’t return to classrooms.
“Parents trust superintendents for education decisions, but they do not trust them for health decisions,” Bailey said, recommending that every district have “its own Dr. Fauci,” a local health official who can explain why it’s safe to open schools, or why it’s necessary to keep them closed.
The Miami-Dade district plans to hire a chief health officer, he noted, and Massachusetts included research about coronavirus and kids’ health in its reopening guidance to address parents’ concerns. Schools should explain the factors that drive their reopening decisions, Bailey said, and they should make sure parents are informed about what they would do in the event a student tests positive.
Another complication: Some states have issued mandates late in the game that conflict with districts’ plans. For Mallace, the Florida mom, it was guidance from the state’s education department that schools must offer in-person instruction five days a week to families who want it. Even if her own children can stay home, Mallace is concerned that schools will become a vector for spreading the virus, making the situation worse.
But some families want schools to open out of concern that they won’t be able to work with their children at home or that their children will become disengaged.
Mele Tausinga—the mother of two Division I athletes who couldn’t have attended college without scholarships—grew concerned that children in Salt Lake City’s lower-income neighborhoods would miss out on important opportunities when their school closed. At the same time, nearby schools in more-affluent areas that were identified as lower risk on state maps, were set to open.
“We are the last area that should be home-schooled. If we home-school, we will lose them to the streets, easily,” said Tausinga, who rallied with student athletes to push for schools to open. She spoke days before the Salt Lake City school board voted to delay the first day of classes and a decision on a reopening plan.
Spokane, Wash., mother DeVony Audet has a different reason for favoring in-person instruction. The oldest of her three children, who is going into 8th grade, is on the autism spectrum.
Audet, who served on her district’s reopening committee, fears Jeremiah, 13, will lose hard-fought gains if he continues remote instruction. He uses talk-to-text to write and an app called Immersive Reader to help him read, but many of his online learning platforms weren’t compatible with those programs. She favors a hybrid plan that would allow groups of students to attend on alternating days but would allow students with disabilities to attend full-time.
“It’s terrifying thinking of sending your child back,” Audet said. “But as a special education parent, it’s equally as terrifying thinking of not sending your child back and what are you doing that will affect your child’s future.”
Audet serves as a special education parent advocate for Stand for Children, an education organization that pushes for education equity and parent engagement. Many parents of students with disabilities lacked trust in their school systems before the pandemic, and this situation is stepping on that nerve, she said.
Districts can address those concerns by bringing conversations down to the school and classroom level and by holding open feedback sessions to show they are actually listening to parents, rather than reading information off of a Powerpoint slide, she said.
Hong, the Wellesley College professor, said the pandemic is making parents feel stressed and vulnerable. And, while those conditions may motivate some parents to speak up, others may face hurdles to doing so.
Undocumented parents may feel unsafe speaking at public meetings. Parents may have language barriers or work schedules that make it impossible for them to commit time to nascent advocacy efforts. Parents of special education students and other children who may feel marginalized at school may not believe their input is welcome.
Districts should ensure they are listening to all parents, not just the most vocal ones, Hong said. That may mean engaging with community organizations they trust, holding online office hours to have open-ended discussions, or changing up meeting times to ask for feedback.
“This is such a sensitive issue because I think people feel that their children’s lives are on the line,” she said. “When the stakes are so high, you really want to know that people understand where you are coming from.”