As school begins amid virus, parents see few good options

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John Barrett and his daughter Autumn pose for photos outside Bascomb Elementary School in Woodstock, Ga., Thursday, July 23, 2020. Barrett says he will educate his daughter virtually and keep her out of in-person classes in Cherokee County schools, even though he's worried she will fall behind on her special education plans, because of concerns about COVID-19's spread. Cherokee County, near Atlanta, is one of many districts nationwide that gave parents a choice between in-person and all-online classes this fall. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

WOODSTOCK, Ga. – John Barrett plans to keep his daughter home from elementary school this year in suburban Atlanta, but he wishes she were going. Molly Ball is sending her teenage sons to school in the same district on Monday, but not without feelings of regret.

As the academic year begins in many places across the country this week, parents are faced with the difficult choice of whether to send their children to school or keep them home for remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many are unhappy with either option.

“I definitely think it’s healthy for a child to go back to school,” said Ball, who feels her sons, William and Henry, both at River Ridge High School in Georgia's Cherokee County district, suffered through enough instability in the spring. “At the same time, I wish they weren’t going back to school right now. It’s very scary.”

Offering parents choices eases some of the problems facing schools. If some students stay home, that creates more space in buildings and on buses.

But the number of families with a choice has dwindled as the virus's spread has prompted school districts to scrap in-person classes — at least to start the academic year — in cities including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, as well as parts of the South and Midwest where school is starting this week.

Many districts that don't begin instruction until after Labor Day are warily tracking the virus — and weighing concerns of educators and parents — as they consider plans including hybrid approaches, with in-person learning at least a few days a week.

In Cherokee County, administrators have stuck with plans to offer in-person school five days a week despite pressure from some parents and teachers. The countywide district also rejected demands to require masks inside school buildings. The families of about 23% of Cherokee County’s 43,000 students have opted for them to learn remotely from home.

Barrett said the mask decision contributed to his decision to keep Autumn, who is in a special education program, home to start third grade at Bascomb Elementary School.