Care and Feeding

Is My Daughter’s Happiness at School Worth the COVID Risk?

Grinning girl sitting at a table with other kids at preschool
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My daughter is 4 and in preschool for the first time. She’s an only child who lives with four adults—her parents and her grandparents, who are immunocompromised. We almost didn’t put her in school at all except she was acting out pretty severely from not having enough playtime and social time with other kids. I tried to create a pod of a few kids, and the logistics never worked. Now she goes to a Montessori school three mornings a week and is happy, calmer, and her vocabulary and social skills have exploded.

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But COVID is spiking again, and I’m afraid for her grandparents. A spot has opened up in a local virtual preschool, in which kids Zoom with the teacher for 30 minutes and then do activities with their caretakers. I’m trying to decide whether to pull her from her school and do that? It’s the safest option, of course, but … can she possibly get the social aspect she needs from being with kids on the computer? Is effective virtual preschool really a thing?

—Torn Mom of a Rambunctious Preschooler

Dear Torn Mom,

I can’t pull punches here. The unfortunate reality is, no, there isn’t really a virtual preschool that will be as effective as in-person preschool in terms of allowing her to expend her energy, flex her social skills, or bolster her pre-academic skills. I don’t mean to offend any virtual preschool teachers who may be reading this—you’re doing excellent work, often with too few resources. But virtual preschool is not the same as in-person preschool and you do not get the same natural/incidental learning experiences that are absolutely integral to the preschool experience. Not to mention I’m restless after a day of Zoom lessons, and I’m an adult. Your toddler is not well suited to hours on the computer!

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On the flip side, you’re talking about the health, and possibly the lives, of her grandparents. Things are getting ugly nationwide, and we have a really rough road ahead of us. I can’t tell you how to weigh that risk. It’s very, very hard, and it’s a personal decision. I can promise you that if you do move her, and Zoom preschool is not as good as her Montessori preschool, she will survive. Even if your daughter begins to exhibit some so-called bad behaviors if she starts to go to preschool on Zoom, I’d bet decent money those behaviors will disappear when she is able to attend school again. It would, obviously, be better educationally for her to stay in school in person, but is the stress and the health risk worth it? That’s for you to decide.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

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My 8-year-old daughter has an as yet undiagnosed condition that interferes with her learning and executive functioning. Her primary difficulties range from misplacing important items, an inability to focus on one task at a time, and bouts of crying/temper tantrums when she doesn’t understand her assignments (this goes for both school and responsibilities at home). My wife and I suspect this is all tied to anxiety and/or depression, which occur clinically on both sides of the family. And let’s face it—the pandemic hasn’t helped!

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To further complicate matters, our daughter was assigned to Ms. X, the third grade teacher everyone hopes they don’t get. Normally, I’d give Ms. X the benefit of the doubt (she’s pretty close to retirement, and ALL teachers have it really tough right now), but she is often rude and dismissive in her interactions with us. For example, my daughter missed a Zoom meeting this week due to a communication mix-up. It had initially been canceled but was later rescheduled. It was an honest mistake, and my wife said as much when she wrote Ms. X an apology for our daughter’s absence. Ms. X’s reply was nothing short of staggering; she basically put the blame on us/our daughter because the schedule is clearly displayed on the shared platform we all use. Ms. X’s teaching philosophy seems to be the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” type; she gives you all the necessary materials, and then you’re on your own. At best, she’s unhelpful. At worst, she’s exacerbating our daughter’s struggles.

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We’d given consent for an IEP evaluation last winter, but that was derailed when kids were sent home in mid-March due to COVID. We’ve since resubmitted our consent, but the process is painfully protracted. I’m getting the distinct impression that the school is using the hybrid learning model as an excuse to drag their feet. At this point, my wife and I feel like our daughter’s only advocates, and we fear that every day that goes by without accommodations is causing lasting harm to her well-being.

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How can we push back on Ms. X without being combative? Is it time to request a meeting with the principal? Most importantly, can we subvert the school system bureaucracy and get our daughter the help she desperately needs today?

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—End of Our Rope

Dear End of Our Rope,

In answer to each of your three questions:

I’m not sure that it will be possible to push back on Ms. X without being combative, but it’s worth trying. One thing you could do, though, is seek out parents of her former students and ask if they found any successful strategies that you might use. It’s always upsetting and disappointing to hear about teachers who are not meeting the needs of students, since they can do some real damage. Thankfully these teachers, I believe, are few and far between.

Yes, it’s time to speak to the principal. Your child’s evaluation should have proceeded already, and there is no excuse for the delay. The pandemic has created enormous challenges for school systems, but districts have had 10 months to figure things out. Your child should not be waiting this long to have her needs met.

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In terms of subverting the school system, your best bet is to find yourself an educational advocate. These are experts who know how to navigate the bureaucracy of school districts and understand the levers that can be pulled to get an appropriate response to student needs. They will also demonstrate how serious you are about this issue and can play the role of bad guy on your behalf. Some states have resources to provide advocates at low or no cost, but it’s likely that you’ll need to hire someone, which is lousy but probably necessary to ensure your daughter’s needs are met. Good luck.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My partner is a newish (less than five years on the job) public elementary school teacher. He’s a fully remote teacher in a pretty tough school district, and I’m wondering—how can I support him? I’ve watched him get increasingly frustrated and burnt out as the year goes on and the expectations pile up, and the school board continues to dismiss any sort of extra support for their teachers (who are working longer hours than ever). He put so much work into becoming a teacher, and is a really, really good one (I can attest because I’ve overheard most of his remote lessons while we’re both working from home!), but he’s questioning at this point whether he wants to continue in the profession.

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I’ve done my best to pick up the slack around the house, been a listening ear and offered advice when he’s asked for it, and encouraged as much relaxing/unwinding/self-care time as is possible. He has participated actively in his union’s advocacy for its teachers. I’ve also written angry letters to every politician I can think of, trying to impress upon them that teachers need more institutional support than they’re being given (I don’t know how much that accomplished, but it felt good). What more can I/we (“we” as in he and I, but also “we” as in, like, the population at large) do? It’s painful to see someone I love so broken down by a job he loves and is good at, and this situation means students are ultimately being failed too.

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—Worried Partner

Dear Worried,

Thank you for advocating for public schools! I’m glad to hear that he is an active union member and that you are politically engaged. One of the most effective tactics my local union has used is stumping for the school board candidates they’ve endorsed. Having supportive board members is paramount to the long-term benefit of public school teachers. (And for anyone who thinks I’m putting teachers before students, let me say that empowered teachers do benefit students because we are the ones educating them.)

That said, your partner needs relief in the short term. Based on your letter, it sounds like you are an incredibly supportive partner doing all you can to be there for him. I’m not sure what more you can do; his happiness is ultimately his responsibility and the decision to stay in the profession is his own.

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This school year has been relentlessly stressful for everyone. Perhaps, at the end of it, your partner will decide to change careers. I hate to lose good teachers, and so I sincerely hope that is not the case. Of course, I want good teachers to find joy and purpose in their work, not constant stress and misery. But to a certain extent, the 2020–21 school year is about our survival; if we make it to the end in one piece, that’s a victory in itself.

I hope he is able to rest and rejuvenate over the winter break so he can return next year with the fortitude to soldier on.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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My daughter is in first grade and has struggled with learning to read. I’m worried with remote learning, she’s falling farther and farther behind. What can I do?

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