For many students in our region and across the country, the fate of their fall semester remains up in the air, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly every local school system has a team in place to evaluate options for fall instruction, but many administrators agree that it’s too early to know yet whether learning will be in person or not.
More than 120 schools comprise the Association of Independent Maryland and D.C. Schools (AIMS), and right now they are “engaged in careful, deliberative planning for the new school year,” says AIMS executive director Peter Baily.
That includes making sure local and state regulations are followed, along with best practices for public health. “Most schools are preparing for three possible scenarios: full opening with on-site learning; a hybrid model that would involve a combination of on-site and distance learning; and full distance learning, such as we have had this past spring,” Baily says.
Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) is another system still evaluating the options for the fall.
“We are just not quite at the point to discuss what fall is going to look like,” says Brandon Oland, a BCPS spokesperson.
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What we know right now
Some colleges, too, are holding out until they have more information.
“I’m still waiting for Johns Hopkins to declare whether next semester is going to be online, in person, or hybrid,” says Smitha Mahesh, a rising senior at Johns Hopkins University, and Baltimore resident. “It’s a decision that I really want them to make as soon as possible, because it’s tricky to be signing on to a lease for the fall semester. It’s a huge financial situation. I’m sure it’s probably more burdening to many of my friends to have to deal with a yearlong lease, and not being sure if you actually have to be on campus or not.”
Towson University’s administrators decided that students will return to campus a week earlier than their planned fall opening—and that left rising senior Kazuri Polee with a decision to make. Polee would have preferred online classes, so she took some time to consider whether to stay home and take a gap year, or go back to school.
“Honestly, I don’t feel comfortable with going back to school, and their plan for the process of returning to TU is honestly very backwards,” she says. “What sense does it make when there have been no changes, but increases in the number of cases of coronavirus? Yes, people are recovering, but so many people have already died from it.”
Both Polee and Mahesh say as students, they felt left out of the decision-making process. While Polee eventually decided to return to campus in the fall, she says that a lack of communication between TU and its students inspired the student body to create a petition demanding that they not return to school after break this past spring. She wonders if that will happen again.
Looking forward to fall
At the same time, other students are excited to return to school in the fall and say they feel safe. “I do feel pretty comfortable going back,” says Zack Huether, also a rising senior at Towson University and a Perry Hall resident.
Huether had a spring internship that the pandemic cut short. “Though I did get a lot of experience there, I still did not get as much experience as I would have liked,” he says
For some rising college freshmen, the excitement of attending their first year of college in the fall has begun to waver.
“I have concerns of not getting the full college experience my freshman year, but I will make the best of it and I am happy I get to go at all,” says Natali Anderson, an incoming freshman at James Madison University and Howard County resident.
“I have concerns of not getting the full college experience my freshman year, but I will make the best of it and I am happy I get to go at all.”
To Anderson, the idea of taking a gap year was never an option for her. “If my first semester is online, I would not consider community college because I want to attend JMU as soon as possible, and if it is possible to go the second semester, I would like to,” she says.
As college students grapple with the decision to go back, local parents with younger students are also deciding whether to send their elementary to middle school-aged children back to a physical classroom.
Options to consider
“So, my first option is to send them back to school. My second option is to do an online program. And my third option is to just homeschool them,” says Kari Harris, a mother of two who lives in Northern Virginia.
Harris’s son has asthma, placing him in the high-risk category for contracting COVID-19. With this on her mind, the decision to send her children back has been a difficult one.
“I’m concerned about keeping the kids safe and making sure he doesn’t get sick, which there’s really no way to completely take that risk away. So, that has me hesitant about sending him back. At least when he’s at home, I can control the risk as much as possible,” she says.
Falls Church resident Heather Pressler Barnett says that for her child, who is also in a high-risk category, the school district’s decision to have low-risk children attend school, while high-risk children participate in “tele-education” is exclusionary.
“The kids that aren’t healthy enough to be at school, they have to stay at home or they should stay home. And so therefore, they aren’t allowed to be at school,” she says.
“And I get the pressure from my son who is like ‘Well, all my friends are going back to school and everyone’s at school, I want to be there.’ And that’s like well, no, your medical condition is going to hold you back and we’re going to have to have you at home instead,” she says.
Pros and cons of homeschooling
For other parents, the struggles of schooling came when online education was introduced. Parents assumed the role of educator or co-educator in their child’s schooling, a role they had to juggle with work, parenting and other responsibilities. For Potomac resident Marisa Tvardek Safa, online learning also took away her daughter’s excitement and enjoyment towards learning.
“And as a kindergartner, I think that asking them to sit in front of a computer on a Zoom call is probably not the best way to deal with such little children trying to learn,” she says. “So, she had a lot of anxiety. She didn’t want to attend. She started to not like learning.”
For Barnett, there were disconnects in her son’s online learning.
“We discovered, with like only two weeks left to the school year, that there’s a whole section of material that we were not aware of was on [the school’s website]. And so he had to try to do six weeks of material in two weeks and that was a little stressful. It’s like no one gave us a tutorial on it, the kids were kind of left to do it themselves.” she says.
With reporting from Adora Brown, PJ Feinstein and Joy Saha