VALDOSTA – Saundra Eldridge is a bit uncomfortable with the idea.

But when her daughter, Alannah, asked to return to school, she agreed.

“She said 'Ma, I want to go to school. I'll wear my mask and use hand sanitizer,'” Eldridge said.

As students prepare for classes, The Valdosta Daily Times spoke with parents about their feelings on schools reopening while Georgia remains mired in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alannah will be a second grader at Scintilla Charter Academy this year. However, Scintilla won't open its doors right away in a traditional sense. The school has opted for a phased reopening with a hybrid schedule.

From Aug. 10-21, all SCA grades will rotate days of attendance with last names A-L attending Mondays and Tuesdays and M-Z attending Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays, no students will attend to allow for deep cleaning of the school.

Beginning Aug. 24, students will return to a traditional schedule with the exception of a 1 p.m. release Fridays for sanitation.

Although their face-to-face reopening may look a bit different from other schools, Scintilla gave parents a chance to opt into virtual learning. Eldridge couldn't see her daughter thriving in that environment as well as she does at the school.

“Am I comfortable sending her back? Not at all. I'm a wreck but I know what the alternative looks like. We'll do remote learning only if we have to because she's too easily distracted at home,” Eldridge said.

As an actively involved parent and substitute teacher for the school, Eldridge considers the environment at Scintilla to be like a family, noting how happy everyone was to see each other again at the recent open house, and is excited to watch her daughter excel.

‘Kids are kids’

Shut down, reopening — Jessie Borklund doesn’t see much of a difference.

“I really don’t feel like anything’s changed from the time they shut the school down,” she said. "So if you closed for school for this same reason and it’s not getting any better — cases are still going up — then why would you put them back in class and in the school where you can’t possibly social distance?”

Borklund has a 14-year-old son, James, going into eighth grade at Lanier County Middle School. She said her son is displeased with her decision: James will spend the fall semester learning virtually. 

“He’s tired of being home. He wants to go back to school with his friends, but I don’t want him to get sick,” Borklund said. “I also have a 3-year-old grandbaby at home so I don’t want him to get exposed at school and her to get exposed.”

Lanier County Middle School didn’t offer virtual learning when the pandemic first struck, Borklund said. The school sent work packets to students' homes during spring, so this will be James first foray into virtual learning. Borklund foresees the method being effective but is concerned about him falling behind in math.

Thankfully for James, older siblings still live at home, so someone will be around to ensure he gets his work done, she said.

If cases start to significantly decline and stay down, Borklund told her son that she would be comfortable with him going back in-person for spring semester.

“He was a little happier when he realized I wasn’t going to make him do it the whole year," she said.

Borklund said only one of her friends plans to send children physically back to school. That friend has a preschooler where virtual learning is not an option.

“She said if it was offered for her, he wouldn’t be going either because she’s very scared about it,” Borklund said. “She’s pregnant and will be delivering shortly.”

As a licensed practical nurse, Borklund has seen COVID-19 patients first-hand as part of treatment teams.

“We’ve been seeing healthy adults who are not elderly who are not having any underlying conditions be the ones who have the hardest time lately as far as having long-term effects, being in the hospital, still needing oxygen,” she said.

With the virus being airborne, Borklund doesn’t believe school air-conditioning systems possess the same quality as hospital ventilation.

“Kids are kids. They don’t understand about health care precautions like adults do. They take their mask off," she said. "They cough on something. They touch something else. 

“It scares me.”

Immunocompromised

Sheila Smallwood Shore plans to send one of her children back to a brick-and-mortar school when it reopens, while the others will be educated at home.

“My two youngest are immune compromised,” more medically fragile than most in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. Two of her three children are special-needs kids, Shore said.

The two oldest children will be schooled at home, while the youngest will return to a school building, she said.

“(The youngest child) was taken out of a public school last year due to immune system concerns,” Shore said.

That child thrives at school, she said, and precautions are being taken to make things better and safer.

“They won’t let sick people in,” Shore said. “He had been coming home because he was catching everything under the sun.”

She doesn’t think masks should be mandatory for kids who are physically returning to schools but she wants them to have their temperatures checked with an emphasis placed on hand washing.

The other two children will study at home “because it was good for them,” she said.

‘No option’

“I actually have no option ... but to send mine back to school,” Brook Lewis said.

Lewis, 31 and a mom of two, has a 7-year-old son, Colton, heading into first grade at Moulton Branch Elementary and 4-year-old daughter, Hayden, going into preschool at one of the Childcare Network locations.

“I’m a single mom, so I don’t have anyone else to help with (virtual learning). My son is ADHD. Virtual learning does not help him,” she said. “Of course, I don’t want him falling behind in his education, so for him to be in a classroom is better for his education.”

In an ideal world, Lewis would have her son receive one-on-one instruction with a personal tutor or personal teacher to keep him engaged and socially distanced.

Working at Greenleaf Behavioral Hospital and seeing patients who have contracted the virus has cemented a more serious outlook on the pandemic for Lewis. 

“If you really don’t see it first-hand, you kind of don’t think it really exists,” she said.

They take extra precautions at the hospital and she tries using the same precautions at home.

Colton and Hayden know to wear their masks in public and seem to grasp there’s something wrong going on in the world. 

“I still don’t think they fully quite understand the consequences when you get the virus,” Lewis said.

If one of her children becomes sick, she’ll just bite the bullet and quarantine with them.

“I’m extremely nervous,” Lewis said, referring to the possibility her children could get sick. “… What can you do? You have to go take care of your kids.”

Luckily, she has accrued enough vacation time during her 12 years at Greenleaf so she will still have an income if she has to quarantine.

Adjustments

Rebecca Kung is anxious about sending her 17-year-old son to school.

“I’m nervous because we don’t know a whole lot about the virus, about how it’s attacking the body,” she said.

Kung’s son attends not one but two schools; he is a dual-enrollment student at Berrien High School and Valdosta State University. He will be taking classes at the college.

She is not fully aware how professors will choose to lead their classes but she’s hoping for mostly virtual instruction.

Kung said one of her son’s courses requires in-person meetings. An instructor is holding a hybrid class with in-person teaching taking place in the classroom one day a week and online the second day.

“My kid is pretty aware of worse-case scenarios with the way that the virus has spread; however, I don’t know how other families are approaching the situation,” Kung said.

A lack of mask wearing and other people's “carefree” attitudes toward the novel coronavirus make her anxious. she said.

She added schools would go virtual in a perfect world but she said she understands some parents who work must send their kids to a school building.

“Each generation goes through their hard times,” Kung said. “… Everybody is in a situation where they have to adjust.”

Board letdown

Lori McFadden has twin sons, ages 16, in Lowndes High School. One son will be returning to the brick-and-mortar school, while the other will attend online.

The son heading back to the school building has a weakness in math, McFadden said.

The biggest problem with going back to a physical school, she said, is she hasn’t heard much from the Lowndes County school system about pandemic preparation.

“Registration was due on July 28, then it was pushed back to July 31,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t know that until we went to the Facebook page.

“I don’t know how that’s going to work out,” she said of the students expected to return and the students expected to go virtual. “I’m not upset with the staff; they’re working to make the kids safe. … It’s the board of education I’m disappointed with. I emailed the BOE, my son emailed the BOE and we got no response.”

The board is not providing much information, she said.

“Scary, very scary,” McFadden said. “The first priority should be safety for the students and staff; the BOE is not living up to that.”

‘Take back the world’

Charlotte Izell’s three daughters will not return to the classroom Aug. 14.

Izell has opted to take advantage of virtual learning in the hope her daughters will remain safe from the coronavirus.

She has a kindergartner, third-grader and a sixth-grader in the Lowndes County school system; all have asthma and one child is autistic, she said.

She said she fears parents who cannot afford to take time off from work will send their sick children to school. The county schools mask mandate factored into her decision as she feels it wouldn’t work for her daughters.

“I don’t want to put my kids in the predicament of, OK, well, this kid went and their parents knew that they had something, but they had to go to work anyway,” Izell said.

She considered in-person teaching, but said she believes her daughter will be safer through virtual learning.

In Lowndes, elementary students must commit to a nine-week period for virtual learning while middle school and high school students have to commit for a semester. Parents may re-evaluate if they’d like to continue virtual learning or not after this period.

Although Izell said she feels virtual learning is the better option, there is a chance of her kids returning to in-person instruction depending on the number of COVID-19 cases at the time.

Her 8-year-old daughter who is autistic has also been diagnosed with ADHD. Izell said her young daughter learns better in a structured environment.

Her sixth-grader, a gifted student, learns better in a school environment, too, she said.

“I am afraid that it’ll set them back some,” Izell said of virtual learning. “That’s my main concern as far as keeping them home and keeping them virtual is that I can’t do what a teacher is trained to do.”

She said she has not received any communication from the school system regarding how her children will be taught. She’s concerned with them having to spend hours in front of a computer.

Still, when Aug. 14 comes and other students are heading back to the school buildings, Izell’s three daughters will be at home attempting to stay safe from the coronavirus.

“I hope everything gets situated, and we take the world back,” Izell said. 

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