In-person or remote learning? Colorado parents agonize over decision — especially those who feel they have no choice

Guilt awaits Ruth Barnett-Alvarez at the end of every path as she traverses the rocky terrain of figuring out how her family of five kids — with two working parents — will head back to school during the ongoing pandemic.

The Colorado Springs mom feels guilty for wanting to send her 8-year-old and 9-year-old to in-person learning in Harrison School District Two, which, like many, is also offering the choice of online education.

She worries her kids could contract or spread COVID-19. But who would watch them while Barnett-Alvarez works as a paralegal and her husband sleeps during the day to recuperate from driving trucks overnight?

Barnett-Alvarez feels guilty for considering keeping her 11-year-old and 15-year-old home — and away from their school social circles — for remote learning, in the hopes of reducing their family’s virus risk by entrusting her older kids to learn more independently.

The 38-year-old feels guilty for loving her job and being made to feel as though she has to choose between her career and her children.

“I’m so stressed out,” Barnett-Alvarez said. “I love my career, and this whole thing is picking between our safety. It’s a safety concern either way. If I don’t have anyone to watch them while they’re home, that’s a concern. Them bringing the virus home — that’s a concern. My 1-year-old being at a day care with other kids and you don’t know where their families have been — that’s a concern. My 15-year-old being asked to be responsible for all his younger siblings all day — that’s too much. It’s all too much.”

Barnett-Alvarez is one of countless Colorado parents tasked with making agonizing decisions about how to proceed with their children’s education as school resumes in the coming weeks, choices that are as much about those kids’ health — and can also deeply impact families’ finances.

Parents are navigating a patchwork of fall reopening plans that typically include fully online options and some variation on in-person education, too. These plans not only vary by district but seemingly by the day. Denver Public Schools, for example, went from announcing a hybrid online and in-person plan at the end of May to a five-days-a-week in-person plan in June to delaying in-person learning into early September in July to postponing most kids’ return to the classroom until at least mid-October less than two weeks later.

If parents manage to keep up with the whiplash of changing plans and public health guidance, they’re faced with more bewilderment trying to best discern what’s safe for their children. Studies about kids and COVID-19 continue to make headlines, but the fact of the matter is the virus is still too new to fully understand how it impacts and interacts with children — How likely is it they get sick? Can they spread the virus? — as evidenced by a slew of evolving and conflicting information.

Nevertheless, the decision about whether kids learn from home or in their classrooms could impact their education, alter family structures, influence parents’ careers or, potentially, result in life or death consequences as COVID-19 continues to spread through the community.

Every family has its own circumstances to mull — health concerns, child care shortages for working or single parents, necessity for special-education services — making some feel like they don’t have a choice in the matter at all. Some parents are finding themselves in a no-win situation where the stakes have never seemed higher.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Buth Barnett-Alvarez, second from left, tries to keep on her stepdaughter, Sophie, 9, third from left, who’s getting dragged by her daughter, Storey, 11, in the living room after dinner at their home in Colorado Springs on July 29, 2020. Ruthie’s son, Micah, 15, left, keeps to himself.

“Sometimes we don’t have an option”

In the spring when school buildings across Colorado shuttered to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, Barnett-Alvarez installed three cameras in her home so she could watch her children from her phone while she worked. She can talk to the kids through the cameras, she said, and at least have the option to review footage if she were to come home and find one of her crew with a black eye.

“I’m at work worrying, ‘Are they OK?’ ” Barnett-Alvarez said. “Are they going to kill each other? But this way, I could talk to them and check in throughout the day.”

Barnett-Alvarez commended her employer for being accommodating, allowing her to work from home and trying to work around her child care needs. However, the paralegal said she is now voluntarily back at the office after struggling to accomplish anything with five kids vying for her attention. Work days from home continued turning into runs to the store to buy more snacks or time spent mediating squabbles.

“If they close schools again and they all have to do remote learning, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Barnett-Alvarez said. “How much can you really ask of your employer? They hired me thinking I had everything under control. Now none of us do. I’m not a teacher. I didn’t go into that field for a reason. I just feel guilty all of the time.”

Monica Warstler can relate.

The Westminster mom of three is divorced and co-parenting with her ex-husband. The 33-year-old works at a call center requiring her to be on the phone from the moment she clocks in. Her ex-husband with a more flexible work schedule picked up their 5-, 6- and 8-year-old kids to help them with their remote learning in the spring when the children had several daily live, online lessons they needed to attend. But Warstler said that dynamic caused too much conflict among the family and won’t work again in the fall.

Needing to work to feed herself and her children, Warstler said she’ll have to send her kids back to their classrooms if that remains an option.

“I pretty much don’t have a choice right now,” she said. “I feel like my only option is in-person learning even if I am concerned about the coronavirus.”

If Westminster Public Schools reverses course and stops offering any classroom education — a move Colorado’s largest districts already have made at least for the first weeks of school — Warstler said she may look into homeschooling her kids so that at least their learning could revolve around her schedule.

Due to her pandemic-induced child care situation, Warstler is on the hunt for a job that may provide her some more flexibility, but she’s having trouble finding something offering that wiggle room and allowing her to support her family.

“A lot of parents either are essential workers or they don’t have a flexible job,” Warstler said. “I wish the schools would try to create a more flexible plan for students. Of course we care about the teachers. We don’t want them to get sick. But sometimes we don’t have an option. It’s even harder when parents are single.”

Kathryn Scott, Special to The Denver Post

Pete and Pamela Leon want their two children, Lexi, 15, left, and Chris, 13, to attend in-person classes this fall in the Cherry Creek School District but are concerned about the possibility the two could contract or spread the coronavirus. The family gathers outside their apartment in Denver on July 30, 2020.

“This is survival mode”

Craig Knippenberg, a Denver-based mental health therapist for children and families, said parents should remind themselves that this is still survival mode and, during these trying pandemic times, being merely good enough is an accomplishment.

He recommends parents compartmentalize, setting limits on how long each day they’re going to worry about different concerns like researching homeschooling or listening to the news so that it doesn’t become all consuming.

As a parent of a Denver Public Schools freshman, Knippenberg said he understands the whirlwind families are experiencing.

“Guilt is not going to help you,” Knippenberg said. “This is survival mode. You’re just trying to do the best you can and get through it. Kids are far more resilient than you think. They’ll be OK. Concentrate on providing them shelter, physical safety, food, a little time to play and some laughter. Just cuddling up on the sofa for some quality time makes up for a lot.”

Pete Leon, a father to two children living with autism, said families with kids who have special needs must sort through an added layer of pros and cons as they decide how to send their children back to school.

Leon said Cherry Creek School District teachers tried their best in difficult circumstances to tend to the needs of his 13-year-old and 15-year-old in the spring, but that remote learning just didn’t provide his kids with the individualized special education they normally need to thrive academically.

“I don’t think I have any choice,” Leon said. “In order for them to get the supports they need, it has to be in-person. That’s the only option it seems for special-needs kids.”

Cherry Creek’s re-opening plan says students with special needs enrolled in remote learning will attend appropriate synchronous lessons and be provided targeted supports, interventions and therapies throughout the day. For in-person special-education learning, the plan says students will attend their specific classes and pull-out services as usual with social distancing.

Leon, who works retail, said he’s worried about the virus.

“If I bring (COVID-19) home from work and they take that to school, I’m very concerned about it,” Leon said. “But I don’t seem to have an option based on what I saw in the spring.”

“What is the right thing to do?”

Sarah Orsborn did feel as though she had a choice, but making the decision was unlike any experience she’s faced.

“I consider myself a super decisive person,” said Orsborn, a parent to twin girls in Denver Public Schools. “I always feel I can make choices very easily. I’ve made big choices in small amounts of time before, and this feels so difficult compared to that. What is the right thing to do? What is the ethical way to be a member of my community? What is the best for my children?”

Orsborn has a congenital heart defect, putting her at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. Orsborn said she felt encouraged bouncing her questions off her husband — an emergency room physician and pediatrician — and understanding that her 8-year-olds are not likely to be virus super-spreaders. However, with the family already at risk of exposure due to his medical work, Orsborn decided it was best to play it safe and enroll her kids in remote learning.

With the privilege of being a stay-at-home mom, Orsborn said she thought choosing remote learning both supported the public school system she and her family love while also making space in classrooms for students whose parents didn’t have a choice but to send them to school.

Denver Public Schools reaffirmed Orsborn’s decision Wednesday, announcing the delay of in-person learning to at least mid-October for most students.

Knippenberg admitted that delay was not the news his household had been hoping for, but that at least it provided some stability in a rapidly changing world.

It’s OK and normal for parents to feel like they need a break from their kids, Knippenberg said.

“That doesn’t make you a bad parent,” he said. “A lot of trauma work is just validating that you had a normal response to an abnormal situation. That takes a lot of weight off. We don’t always have the control we’d like to have. We’re going to need to have a tolerance for ambiguity for all of this.”

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