As Beverly and Sue Uhlenhake watched their daughters Quinn and Ansley and their son Ben at the playground at Brewer Community School on Wednesday evening, they discussed the issue on most parents’ minds this summer: Is it safe to send their kids back to school?
“I think of all of the families that our kids will be in class with and we don’t know who they’ve been around and who they’ve been exposed to so,” Sue Uhlenhake said. “And I’m sure the other parents feel the same way about our kids.”
As school reopening dates draw closer, parents are worried about sending their children back to school amid the pandemic, and say that school districts’ reopening plans so far are not enough to ease their concerns.
Many districts in the Bangor area have announced their plans to reopen school with safety precautions like social distancing, use of face coverings and limited movement around school buildings in place. Some parents’ concerns lie with their individual district’s plan to reopen and that most agree that in-person schooling offers a better learning experience, many are worried about the highly contagious nature of the virus and what it might mean for their children if they were to go back to school.
Schools in other parts of the country that planned to open their doors to students again have had to revert to online learning when dozens of staff members were forced to quarantine after having been potentially exposed to the disease.
Bangor and Brewer have announced their reopening plans in the last two weeks, after the state gave all Maine schools approval to reopen for in-person instruction.
Bangor said it would run three pathways simultaneously: some students will return to school every day, some will return two days a week and some will learn entirely online. In June, the school sent out a survey to parents which asked them which option they were most comfortable with.
This week, some Bangor schools sent parents another survey asking them to make a choice between the three options of schooling.
Sarah McCarthy, who has a 12-year-old daughter at William S. Cohen School, said she had not made a decision yet, but her family is leaning toward virtual learning for next semester.
“My opinion is really based on the broader global pandemic, not what Bangor is doing or not doing,” she said. “I know that’s not the best option for us education-wise and socially, but I still see it as temporary. What’s six months to a year of this when the alternative is sickness or death?”
Ansley and Ben Uhlenhake play on the Brewer Community School playground on Aug. 6. Credit: Natalie Williams, BDN
McCarthy said she appreciates Bangor’s flexible plan that accommodates each family’s decision.
Christine Mihan, whose son goes to Vine Street School and daughter to Fairmount School, said she would prefer the district to make the choice instead of leaving it up to parents.
“I think my major concern is that offering too many choices is making things very stressful for both teachers and parents,” Mihan said. “I understand that there is no right answer and so no matter what you do, you’re going to have people that are upset. But I feel that offering too many options is just making it worse.”
Mihan said she wants to send her children to school five days a week, because they did not learn well when schools were forced to transition to remote learning in spring. But she is hesitant to do that until the schools clarify how the hybrid option will work. So far, Bangor has said that students who pick the hybrid option will go to school two days a week, but whether they’ll mingle with students going back five days a week is unclear.
In the June survey, she picked a full-time return to school option, but said she needs to get more details on how the hybrid option will work to make a final decision.
“[My children] need the routine, they need their teachers and they need the in-person learning,” Mihan said. “I just need to hear more definitive answers and more concrete evidence that my children are going to be safe in order for me to continue with the five days a week.”
Brooke Dupuy, a Bangor resident with children in first and fifth grades, said she’s considering the hybrid option for her children, but she is concerned about how safe it will be.
“In theory, doing a hybrid system where you’re reducing the number of kids in the building reduces contact between kids, but a big problem with that is that the adults in the building are still seeing 100 percent of the kids,” she said. “And will my kid go to class two days a week with kids who have been there five days, who are also contacting the other kids who are there a different two days a week?”
Bev and Sue Uhlenhake said they preferred Brewer’s hybrid model to the parent choice system in Bangor. Under Brewer’s plan, students will be divided into two groups and each group will attend school on two designated days a week.
“Would I rather be in this more conservative model that was set up, or what I rather open it wide open knowing that we could shut down any given day?” Bev said. “I’d rather take it slow.”