Parents weigh time and safety to make back-to-school choices

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ Many Idaho parents who want their children to attend school online during the coronavirus pandemic can get computer equipment and even lunches provided by their school district. But they will need to supply plenty of one commodity on their own: time.

The Boise School District opened enrollment in its new online school system Monday, giving families the option to avoid the heightened risk of COVID-19 exposure their children may face in a brick-and-mortar setting.

But online school won't be a cakewalk _ the district said parents should expect to spend about four hours a day guiding grade school students through the online classes, and older students will need about two hours of daily parental involvement.

For a family with two younger children, that's the hourly equivalent of a full-time job. But some say the other option _ sending kids to school and hoping for the best _ could come with a high cost as well. Confirmed COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing in Idaho. The rate of positive coronavirus tests is currently more than 15%, three times higher than the target level recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

``As a pediatrician, I have great concerns about opening schools and frankly, I'm worried,'' said Dr. David Peterman, the CEO of Primary Health Medical Group. ``When you have this high a prevalence in the community, it's close to impossible for there not to be spread, no matter what you do in the schools.``

More than 500 students were enrolled in online school within the first few hours of the enrollment period, Boise School District spokesman Dan Hollar said.

``We could have 1,000, we could have 6,000 _ it's really dependent on how people are feeling as we navigate through the pandemic,'' Hollar said.

The risk to students and teachers is a concern for Hannah George, a Boise mother with a first-grader and a toddler at home. She's keeping 6-year-old Mia home from Grace Jordan Elementary this fall.

``I've talked to two other families about doing like a weekly home-school co-op with them _ the idea behind it is that all of us could work part-time, some of the time. We could switch off the days,'' George said. ``I do think that the kids are losing a lot of the social aspect of school, and that was a really hard decision for us because we've kept them isolated for so long.''

But George fears that if coronavirus numbers continue to climb, the schools could be forced to close anyway. Having continuity in learning _ rather than trying to switch to a new style of lessons partway through the year _ seems like a better option for her family, she said.

Both George and her husband work from home, so they have the flexibility to help Mia with online classes.

``I think what's hard to think about is if you or someone else is a shift worker, and they're not home 8 to 5,'' she said. ``So what, they just have to send their kids back regardless of whether they feel safe or not?``

Lora Bonser said she is still trying to decide whether her junior high and high school kids will attend school in person or online.

``Up until even yesterday, we've been marching forward with the plan of, `Yes, we want our kids to get back to school,' `` she said Tuesday. ``But then I started digging more into the Boise reopening plan, link after link after link, and actually read the CDC guidelines ... I have some concerns. It seems a little ambiguous.''

Bonser said she is unsure if schools can actually manage social distancing, especially at places like Boise High School, where roughly 1,500 students typically crowd the halls between classes.

``If my daughter goes to seven classes a day, and she picks up COVID _ do all those kids in all those classes and all those teachers go home for 14 days? '' she said. ``I'd feel more comfortable with half the school being in there at once.''

Another Boise mom, Julia Grant, said she is ready for her four children to get back to the classroom. Three of them _ fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders _ attend private Catholic schools, and her oldest is a senior at Boise High.

Masks are part of the school dress code for the youngest two, Grant said. Her older two will follow social distancing and hygiene precautions designed to keep them safe during the pandemic.

``I just think my kids miss their friends desperately. I think they still need to shoot hoops with their friends,'' Grant said. ``And I feel teachers are really good at teaching, in that they can motivate students in ways parents cannot.''

Odette Bolano, the CEO of Saint Alphonsus Health System, said Tuesday that people can reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus by taking four basic steps: Avoiding large groups, staying six feet away from others, wearing a mask and keeping hands clean.

``I've got to tell you, if I was the parent of a young child, the dilemma that I would find myself _ the emotional and mental stress of whether or not they should go back to school _ is something we could prevent for many parents if we just follow these four practices,'' Bolano said Tuesday.