By Mylika Scatliffe
AFRO Women’s Health Writer
Dealing with COVID -19 has become a way of life. Two years into this pandemic and it still touches nearly all aspects of our lives. Work, play, and one of the most important aspects – school. Students of all levels have been affected in one way or another. Children, parents, teachers, administrators have been navigating COVID in countless ways since March 2020. A total shutdown that lasted for months transitioned to a full year of students from pre-kindergarten to post graduate levels going to school online. Who would have thought a couple years ago that we would, as a matter of habit, be differentiating between in person, hybrid and virtual learning? When we started the initial shutdown that was supposed to last two weeks, we never imagined there would be two years of missed milestones and rites of passages such as proms and graduations.
We turn on the news and we read our social media feeds and see daily accounts of positivity rates, mask mandates, and ever-changing CDC guidelines. Education stories and articles are often headlined by disturbing, and frankly shameful, stories of parent town halls erupting into violence over disagreements about safety protocols such as weekly testing and wearing masks in school. However, when I spoke to some parents in different school districts in the Maryland/DC area, they all had the same thing in common; the desire to keep their children safe and to protect their physical and mental health – especially during the recent surge of the Omicron variant – and learning loss. Last year there were so many moving parts related to the pandemic for parents to navigate. How to monitor their children’s online learning and compliance while having to get online and work themselves. How to make sure their children were getting online even when they had to work outside the home. Wondering if their children were falling behind without in person instruction and assistance. Wondering how children, particularly those with no siblings, were dealing with not being able to see friends, favorite teachers and participate in favorite activities. And of course, now that children are back in school buildings, how to balance concern for keeping them from contracting COVID and maintaining academic standards and performance.
Returning to in person learning last fall doesn’t mean everything is back to normal. Teachers have to bridge the gaps for learning losses suffered by students while simultaneously helping them reacclimate to being back at school. Parents have to consent to their children having regular Covid tests, decide whether or not to have them vaccinated, provide effective masks, and monitor their academic progress. The children are navigating huge changes – starting a new grade and in some cases a new school, many after a full year of not being with their peers. After a year of online learning, keeping up and trying to excel and in some cases catching up to their grade level, all while staying masked and remembering to maintain social distance.
Different children have different needs, sometimes within the same household. Teri Cain has two daughters in Anne Arundel County public schools. Peyton is a 7th grader and Sydney is in 4th grade. Both of them coped reasonably well with the upheaval from the pandemic. Sydney completed her entire 3rd grade year virtually, while Peyton went back to her school building last March. “I thought it would be better for Peyton to be in person. She has ADHD and benefits more in person instruction, particularly since the classes were temporarily smaller since everyone wasn’t back in the building yet. Because there were so few students in the building and a mask mandate was in place, I felt it was safe,” said Cain. Neither of Cain’s children suffered academically but they were a little bored and less challenged by the online instruction, particularly Sydney. Now with Omicron running rampant, both are back to full time, in person instruction. “It’s a little scary with how easily this variant is transmitted, and while I have some questions about the Covid safety protocols, I know the district is doing the best they can,” Cain said.
*Rita Finney has been a teacher for 26 years. For most of her career she was a classroom teacher but recently transitioned to teaching Multi Language Learners, or what used to be English as a Second Language. Throughout her career she taught in a variety of school systems in the Baltimore Metropolitan area, including Baltimore City Public Schools, a now closed private school in Baltimore County. She currently teaches in Howard County Public Schools. She switched from the classroom to teaching Multi Language Learners because she was looking for a change and had always been intrigued by her students whose first language was not English. Finney recalls taking a statistics course in graduate school at Coppin State University in Baltimore. “The statistics course was already super challenging, and the professor had an extremely thick African accent; I couldn’t understand nearly anything he was saying. I remember what that was like so I can imagine what my students must go through. Plus, there is a stigma attached to them, the assumption that they are less intelligent which is not the case at all. Now combine the language barrier with a student who actually might be struggling academically and combine that with all the challenges of learning during COVID. I want to be able to provide that extra help they need and not see them fall through the cracks,” Finney said emphatically.
Felicia Colbert, of Windsor Mill, MD doesn’t have children of her own, but she loves all her nieces and nephews as if they were hers. They along with the rest of her extended family have always spent lots of time together pre-COVID and throughout the pandemic without any problems until the kids went back to school last fall. Her entire extended family had COVID last month, likely because one of the kids (all students in Howard County Public Schools) contracted it at school. “It’s been a challenge for them, particularly for my niece in high school because she couldn’t be with her friends, and for my 5-year-old nephew because he’s autistic and won’t wear a mask.” Colbert admits to some concerns because the safety protocols have changed along with the CDC recommendations. Her niece, a high school sophomore, was told at one point that even with a positive COVID result she could stay in school since she was vaccinated and was not exhibiting symptoms. Her parents kept her out of school anyway, to avoid her passing the virus along to anyone else.
Olethea Goff, of Myrtle Beach, SC contracted COVID last month, and spent Christmas week in quarantine. “My whole body was wracked with pain; everything, even finger- and toenails hurt, and I’ve always been very aggressive about COVID safety. I’m vaccinated but wasn’t yet boosted when I got sick; now I have to wait 90 days. I’m always masked up in public. I thought I would have been the last person to get COVID,” said Goff. Tatyana Baker, her 23-year- old granddaughter lives with her and attended her senior year at Clark Atlanta University virtually, graduating cum laude. While she was attending the Medical University of South Carolina, the campus at one point reported a 30% positivity rate, changing the way the traditional pinning ceremony took place.
All over Maryland and DC, at different types of schools – public, charter, private – the concerns are the same, keeping children healthy and on track academically with Omicron wreaking havoc. Here’s what some parents had to say:
“I think the learning process was shortchanged during virtual learning, but they did ok. Classroom management was difficult for teachers when the kids were online because they couldn’t control certain situations remotely. Now they have to worry about sanitizing 25-30 desks between classes. Who has the time?” – *Ezra, a 51-year-old father of a high school junior at Franklin High School in Reisterstown, in Baltimore County.
“Neither of my daughters’ grades suffered while they were virtual last year. They were able to keep up with their work, but they struggled with not being able to socialize with their friends. My oldest changed schools and initially suffered some anxiety about the more challenging workload and making friends, but she’s since settled in and is doing well. – *Micheline, a 49 -year- old mother of a 5th and 10th grader in Washington, DC public charter schools.
“My kids were only virtual for two months, from March through May of 2020, and started back in person at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. My 3rd grader has always been pretty independent, even with online learning. Virtual school was a challenge for my youngest and since he was going to kindergarten, I let him go back to in person. Kindergarten sets you up for the rest of elementary school, so it was important for him to be well. I was really concerned about Omicron at first because it’s transmitted so easily, and kids don’t always keep their masks on properly. Fortunately, resources aren’t a problem at their school so tests are always available, and the class sizes allow them to properly distance. So they’re doing just fine. Honestly, I hear the same from all of my friends whose kids are in public schools as well.” *Ebony, a 36-year-old mother of a first and third grader at a private school in Northwest Baltimore County.
Breakthrough infections (when vaccinated and boosted people contract the virus) are frighteningly common with the Omicron variant. There seems to be a false sense of security because the symptoms are generally milder than with the Delta or initial variant. But mild is still relative. A “mild” infection of Omicron can still leave you bedridden for a week or two. Severe illness, hospitalization and death are generally avoided among the vaccinated and boosted. However, ICUs throughout the nation are overwhelmed with COVID patients, mostly unvaccinated. CDC guidelines regarding quarantine protocols may have changed but the one recommendation remains unchanged – that getting vaccinated and boosted against Covid is the best chance of protection and keeping our kids safe and in school.
*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.
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