LOS ANGELES (AFP) – With the start of the United States (US) school year only weeks away, Marina Avalos still has no idea how or where her seven-year-old daughter will attend classes. Like many mothers, Avalos is reluctant to send her child back to school at a time when coronavirus across the country has surged past three million cases, including 130,000 deaths.
On Tuesday, California – where she lives – set a new daily cases record, with 11,694 infections.
“The whole situation is making me very nervous,” said Avalos, 46. “I don’t feel safe sending my daughter back to school like before.”
Despite evidence children are less vulnerable, the fear of classroom contagion is shared by many parents, who suspect younger pupils will particularly struggle to socially distance or wear uncomfortable masks for hours.
Yet many are also desperate for their sons and daughters to return, whether for financial reasons as they plan to go back to work, or out of fear that their children’s education will be seriously damaged by months away from the classroom.
This conflict has spilled into the political arena too, with President Donald Trump this week vowing to open schools “quickly, beautifully, in the fall.”
But California Governor Gavin Newsom has insisted that schools must only open when it is safe to do so. “That to me is not negotiable,” he said. Ultimately the decision is not up to the president or the governor, but in the hands of school districts.
Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest, has yet to decide on its classroom approach, although county health director Barbara Ferrer reportedly told education bosses to have “plans in place to continue distance learning for 100 per cent of the time.”
Monika Zands has three children between the ages of eight and 17, and firmly believes face-to-face teaching is needed for the coming school year, particularly for her youngest.
“Our older children did not fall behind as they basically did school every day online… it kept them in the natural flow of school,” said Zands, 47.
“The little one definitely fell behind in knowledge and intellect – if this continues I am definitely concerned about how she will have the drive and motivation to catch up.”
Last semester, the youngest girl received an hour of online teaching followed by five hours of homework.
“She’d be in tears, crying ‘I can’t see my friends, and I can’t do this and now you want me to sit and do homework all day long,’” recalled Zands, whose children attend private schools.
If schools do not re-open in August, she is considering grouping with other parents to hire a tutor to provide in-person lessons to a small group.
But it is a luxury few can afford – something that concerns University of California Los Angeles child psychiatrist Jena Lee.
“I’m especially concerned of the risk of further polarisation of learning between different socioeconomic groups,” Lee said.
Children “from more disadvantaged homes are more vulnerable to academic setbacks with schools closed.”
Lee also warned that the longer schools are closed, the greater the “risk of more injury to education as well as their mental health and social development.”
Avalos agrees. Her daughter has an attention disorder, which at school would be addressed by a specialist – a service not available online.
As an only child, her “very social” daughter also badly misses playing with her friends.