I recently met virtually with a parent who, like most, are weighing the risks of returning to school in the fall. She works outside the home in a front line service job and, like many Americans, has a limited vacation or paid time off. Not surprisingly, she also has a very tight budget. 

Health Risk: Very High

At home, she has an 8th grader and a medically compromised, but active, grandparent. The mother has closely monitored public health announcements and is concerned about the growing spread of COVID. She is less worried about her child but is increasingly afraid for the grandmother. For this parent, the COVID risks posed to the grandparent feels exceedingly high, and she is trying to mitigate this risk by limiting exposure to others. But doing so comes with other risks. 

Academic Risk: Moderate

When school closed in March, mom began requiring her daughter to do the reading and math packets provided by her school. Both mom and grandmother encouraged the child to keep up with her studies. Once school ended, mom participated in the “LeapFrog Summer” Webinar and, afterward, decided to purchase a simple, $20, math and reading curriculum for the summer months. She required daily work for her daughter, and, to her surprise, her daughter completed the assignments without significant resistance. Mom was pleased with her daughter’s progress and is now wondering if home learning makes sense this fall, possibly through her school district’s online learning platform. 

Social Risk: Moderate

Her daughter is not thrilled at the idea of virtual schooling, so, for social reasons, mom would like her child to attend school or, at least, to spend some regular time with her classmates. Mom would like to have more flexibility with how her child interacts socially with the school. For example, she would like her daughter to spend some time at school but, because of her COVID concerns, does not want her daughter to spend more than just a few hours at a time. She asked me, “Maybe she could take her math and science class at school, then come home?”

Mom is attempting to mitigate her daughter’s social risks by exploring alternatives inside the school and out. Mom is also considering forming “Social Pods” with a few families in her 8th-grade class. Social Pods, also known as “Quarantine Pods” are described in detail here.  

School Distrust Risk: High

I asked mom if she had spoken with her school about her ideas and concerns. Repeatedly, she indicated a high level of distrust in her school. About the school, she said, “they don’t care about my situation.” 

The seeds for this distrusting relationship were sown long before COVID, but the damage is felt now. Although she had many positive interactions with her child’s teacher in the weeks after school closure, that teacher has moved schools — a regular occurrence in her school. Additionally, mom says that her school has “rarely kept a principal for more than a year or two” so mom has “given up trying to get to know the principals ’cause they will be gone soon enough.” Mom currently has no relationship with any campus personnel. 

Rebuilding relationships during a crisis is exceedingly difficult, but it is essential. To minimize the School Distrust Risk, I strongly encouraged mom to contact the school to discuss her situation, her unique needs, and her specific desires. I told her to start with the school secretary ask to speak with someone who can help her work through her situation. 

I told mom to be patient because schools are swamped right now but should begin the outreach immediately. In the days since our conversation, however, she had not contacted the school. This is a common parental failing — complain in silence — but her hesitation is somewhat understandable given her history. Still, her lack of leadership will seriously undermine her situation. 

I will note that some schools attempted to mitigate this School Distrust Risk by calling every parent and proactively initiating a conversation about their unique situations. Unfortunately, this behavior is as effective as it is rare. And, not surprisingly, online surveys and other impersonal tools do little to rebuild parental trust. 

Financial Risk: Low

Lastly, because of the child’s age and a live-in grandmother’s, mom is not concerned about lost income due to school closure. As a result, the home is more conducive to non-traditional learning structures like virtual school. 

It is worth noting that, despite the grandmother’s health concerns, her presence represents significant insulation to several of the above risks. Were grandmother not in the home, the Health Risks would decline, but the Financial and Academic Risks would increase dramatically. School closure would directly threaten the family’s finances. 

This highlights the critical importance of parents building and maintaining an active “Assistant Coaching Staff.” Assistant Coaches are those neighbors, friends, or relatives who have enough flexibility to fill in for parental duties during a school disruption. Building a network of Assistant Coaches will be essential in the coming months and years. 

Summary of Parent’s Risk Profile

  • Health Risk: Very High
  • Academic Risk: Low-Moderate
  • Social Risk: Moderate
  • School Distrust Risk: High
  • Financial Risk: Low

With this analysis, mom was able to understand the nature of her risks more clearly. She also shared this analysis with her daughter, which helped her understand the broader family situation better. The family is continuing to explore ways to mitigate the risks and will make a schooling decision closer to the start of school based on the spreading of COVID. (And I will continue to press mom to negotiate with the school.)

This post is meant to bring down the level of fear so that each parent can evaluate their individual risks in a way that is analytical, rational, and dispassionate. 

Matt Barnes

Don’t Fear of the Fall

Humans are terrible at evaluating risk. There are many reasons for this, but there is no doubt that we make the worst decisions when we are afraid. Our fear overrides our decision making and leaves us vulnerable to error.

Parents are now evaluating the risk of sending their kids to school this fall. The risks are numerous and, make no mistake, fear is growing in their minds. 

Fear-Less Weighing of Risk

For most parents, there are six key risks that they are weighing. 

  1. Health Risks – With COVID, this risk tends to jump to the top of the list. But the danger is usually not about the child getting COVID. Thankfully, COVID does not sicken children like it does adults. The most pressing risk is to the adults around the asymptomatic child. Additionally, children who have medical concerns (asthma, diabetes, immunocompromised, etc.) have a higher risk of COVID complications. Parents are weighing the direct risks to their children and the adults in their homes. 
  2. Academic Risks – It is not a new phenomenon that many kids lose academic ground when schools close. This is a primary justification of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to reopen schools. But this fall will not be normal. Schools are planning to have a significant number of days where kids will be at home. Many schools will be closed for two to three days each week. So, the AAP’s recommendation still will require a significant amount of home learning. As parents learn the skills of home instruction, there will be less academic risk for students.
  3. Social/Emotional Risks – Kids are social creatures, and there are social and emotional risks when they are isolated. Every parent must balance the risk of a child’s need to socialize and the health risks of doing so. This is a tough risk to evaluate, but, as the story above demonstrates, the evaluation is different for every family. 
  4. Financial Risks – This is a biggie. Parents who work outside the home, or parents who have inflexible at-home jobs, face serious financial risks every time the school closes. Many parents have no paid-time-off, so they have to give up a day’s income when the school closes. Additionally, because the economy has weakened, jobs that were once thought stable are now vulnerable. As schools make plans to regularly close schools during the week, many parents are unsure how they will keep their children safe while also keeping up with their jobs. This is where the development of an “Assistant Coaching staff” is so critical. Families must begin now developing partnerships with friends, neighbors, and family members to mitigate this risk.
  5. Trust in the School – Parents feel left out of the plans for the new school year. Occasional online parent surveys help, but many parents feel that their individual concerns are not being heard. As the story describes, both parents and schools are responsible for improving this. My advice to parents is that they take the lead — it is their child, so their leadership is required. Likewise, my advice to schools is to treat COVID like the “Wicked Problem” it is. There will not be any single policy or solution that will get us through this. Instead, it will be a constant adjustment to the realities of the moment. It will require flexibility, adaptability, and massive communication to families. And the degree to which parents feel that their unique situations are considered will help improve the ultimate outcome: student learning. 
  6. Miscellaneous Risks – Then, there are specific risks that are of critical importance to some families. These risks may outweigh all others. Examples include kids with special needs or families who need other services offered by the school (food, medical, speech therapy, etc). 

What Now?

  • First, parents, you must be clear about your risks and mitigation options. 
  • Secondly, you must lean into the negotiation with your school about your unique needs. Many times, the school will have outdated and seemingly arbitrary policies that insulate them from considering legitimate and reasonable requests. This is unfortunate but normal. So pray for flexibility but do not expect it. Instead, do what you can to negotiate respectfully towards better options for you and your child. 
  • Thirdly, you must build your “Assistant Coaching staff.” Whether it is a grandparent (whom I call the “secret weapon” in education), a neighbor, or a Social Pod, you must develop supports that can assist if/when schools need to close or pivot unexpectedly. 
  • Lastly, fear has no place here. We are living in a moment of challenge, but we will get through it. Stay focused on your child’s education. Assume the mindset of a Head Coach and take the leadership role that you are uniquely required to play. No pity parties… only clear-eyed problem-solving. And, if I can be a resource, schedule a free one-on-one with me

You will get through this… and your child will be better off because of your leadership. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it!