Mary Barzee’s seven-year-old son, Leo, sits down at their kitchen table to begin another day of online school, a routine he has been stuck in all school year.
As his teacher starts the lesson, she cannot see that behind the camera her student is crafting paper airplanes and does not have his book open to the correct page. Barzee sits at the kitchen table with Leo, trying to balance working from home and helping her son with online school.
“This has already gone on for a year, and I am in a pretty desperate situation with my first-grader,” Barzee said in an interview. “He has major Zoom fatigue. He’s regularly crying, and his self-esteem has taken a major hit. It’s a disaster. His teachers are doing the best they can, but they cannot see what’s happening on the other end of the screen.”
After almost a full year of online instruction, the Durham Public Schools board voted 5-2 Thursday to begin bringing students back into the schools on March 15 — reversing a previous decision to keep classrooms closed for the rest of the school year. The vote came in response to Senate Bill 37, which the General Assembly passed this week. If Governor Roy Cooper signs the bill, all North Carolina school districts will be required to offer in-person instruction for all students.
Teachers want vaccines
Barzee said she will return Leo to in-person learning at George Watts Elementary School as soon as it is available, because he has struggled with virtual learning. At the same time, she acknowledges the concerns of educators who say they should receive coronavirus vaccines before they are asked to return to school.
“I want to advocate for vaccines for teachers and other school staff who will be going back to teach in person,” Barzee said. “I have hopes that Durham schools can provide safe in-person learning environments for students and teachers, too.”
Reopening schools could save other families from desperate situations. Kristin Cunningham said she had to quit her full-time job and find part-time work that she could do at home, for less money, just so she could oversee the online instruction of three children who are George Watts Elementary students.
“I felt kind of abandoned by the public school system because so many people rely on that system being in place to care for their children and to be able to work,” Cunningham said in an interview. “I work in health care, and I didn’t have the option of working from home.”
Parents sacrifice careers
Across the country, parents have had to make career sacrifices so that they can help their children with virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This burden most often has fallen on working mothers, who are nearly three times more likely than fathers to stay home and take care of the kids, according to research from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve.
“We’re just barely hanging on,” Barzee said. “Everything to do with my job is dictated by [my son’s] class schedule.”
Many parents are concerned that their young children are forced to spend too much time in front of their computers, when they should be socializing and playing outside.
“Virtual instruction is not working for my first grader,” Maria Cattani of Clarendon Street said in an email to the DPS board. “Despite heroic attempts by her and the teacher, every day we end up in tears and tantrums. My kid has heart-wrenching meltdowns about [how] she wants to go back to school. She wants to play, she wants to do puzzles, Legos, build forts.”
Barzee has opted out of virtual art, music, and P.E. classes for her first-grader and his preschool brother. She homeschools those subjects herself, so her boys won’t have to spend their entire day online.
“Before [the pandemic], we were extremely cautious about screen time,” she said. “We didn’t have a TV in our house. It’s just been really difficult to watch my kids’ attention span diminish.”
In an email to the DPS board, Pablo Ariel of Clarendon Street described how his six-year-old daughter had a meltdown over her virtual homework. She could not stop sobbing as she repeated over and over, “I just want to go to school. I just want to go to school.”
“Kids’ voices have been absent from the discussions about reopening,” Ariel said. “Virtual learning for young kids is a failure, and they are suffering.”
For many children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), online instruction is simply not an option. IEPs are special education services tailored to serve children with disabilities or other challenges that might impede their success in school.
“My son is autistic and will not do Zoom school. So he essentially is receiving no education at all this year from the school system, which I believe to be illegal and a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act,” the parent of a four-year-old boy, who asked to be anonymous to protect the child’s privacy, said in an interview. “I feel disappointed at the lack of creativity or flexibility from the school system. It felt like the needs of neuro-divergent kids were coming in last.”
DPS enrollment has declined
The decision to begin reopening schools could make a crucial difference for enrollment numbers in Durham Public Schools, which lost 2,850 students at the beginning of the school year. More parents have told DPS officials that they might find other options for their children, such as charter or private schools, unless classroom instruction is restored.
“Virtual school is not working for our child and our family,” Meghan Brown of Inverness Drive said in an email to the DPS board. “We are being forced to change school districts unless Durham changes their mind. Not trying to pressure, but it’s just our reality.”
The DPS website has details of the plan to restore in-person instruction for families that want it.
K-5 students will attend in-person class every weekday except for “Wellness Wednesday,” which will be remote. Students in grades 6-12 will be divided into three rotating groups so that each group has in-person instruction for two days a week and virtual school for three days. All K-12 students with IEPs have the option for in-person instruction up to four days per week.
The reopening plan includes provisions for personal protective equipment, social distancing and other measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Bettina Umstead, the DPS board chair, said in a news release that students who opt to continue learning from home will help increase the safety for teachers returning to the classrooms.
“If you can and if you are able, it’s important that you keep your students at home so that we can have proper social distancing and support our staff in this plan,” Umstead said. “I want everyone to know that we care deeply, each and every one of us, about every single one of our educators, every single one of our students, and this is not a decision that we make lightly.”
9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: Ever since they shifted to online instruction last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Durham’s empty schools have longed for the return of teachers and students. File photo by Henry Haggart