Icylee Basketville worries about putting her daughter on a school bus. Jessika Roche isn’t sure how she’s going to educate her two children full time at home and work enough to make ends meet. And Gretchen Dahlkemper laments the fact that her best option is sending her children to live in another city.
The Philadelphia School District on Wednesday released its school reopening plan, offering families the choice of either a two-day-a-week face-to-face option or the choice of going 100% virtual.
It put parents in an immediate panic, worried about both their children’s health and their own ability to support their families, and laid bare the lack of a safety net for working families. The district said it would work with the city and outside providers to make child care available for days when students are not in school, but there’s no guarantee those solutions will work for everyone.
Dahlkemper did the math, and concluded she couldn’t make it work. So she and her ex-husband are sending their children, rising sixth, fourth, and second graders who had attended Nebinger Elementary in South Philadelphia, to live in Miami with relatives who are better positioned to care for and teach the kids, probably for the entire school year. Dahlkemper, a political consultant, and her ex-husband, a chef, will work from Florida when they can arrange it.
“I don’t really understand how even two working parents who are living together can do it without extra support,” said Dahlkemper, who has been home with her children for months, first on medical leave, then because COVID-19 closed schools. “The cost of living in Philly means that my ex-husband and I both have to work.”
Pre-COVID, Roche, who lives in North Philadelphia, was excited that both her children would be in school full day at McClure Elementary, allowing her to pick up more hours driving for rideshare companies and delivering food orders. But because of her younger son’s heart condition, the family went into lockdown in March, and she doesn’t feel comfortable sending either child to school in person in the fall.
“I’m not even comfortable sending the kids in two days a week, and that’s putting a lot of stress on our family financially,” said Roche, whose husband was laid off when the pandemic struck. She watched Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. lay out the back-to-school plan with a lump in her throat and questions swirling in her brain, Roche said.
“What are single parents doing? What resources are available for me as a parent, and now as a teacher? Who can I go to with my questions and concerns? What are people doing for us parents? What do we do about money?” asked Roche.
Basketville was pleased with the way her child’s teachers at Wagner Middle School in West Oak Lane mobilized and helped her learn during the last months of last school year, she said. But now that her daughter is going to high school things feel more complicated.
The girl attends regular education classes, but has an individualized education plan that calls for her to receive school bus transportation, and that makes Basketville nervous. (District officials have said students will be socially distanced on buses.)
“Is there going to be an aide on the bus who knows how to handle kids with certain needs?” asked Basketville..
For Nancy Lin, whose two children attend McCall Elementary in Center City, she’d be satisfied with the district’s reopening plan if it was implemented with fidelity. But Lin is leaning toward keeping her children home until a vaccine is developed. She was disappointed with remote instruction last spring, frustrated with the way that students at some schools had scant time with teachers and others had hours of direct instruction daily.
“If we couldn’t really deliver remote instruction in an equitable way, so that everyone felt like it was a meaningful experience …, how is the School District going to really roll this out across the city?” Lin said in Mandarin, through a translator.
Many of the Mandarin-speaking families Lin meets with do not have jobs that enable them to work from home. Families feel as if they’re in a position where they have to prioritize children’s health, and then in the process, sacrifice income necessary to do that, Lin said.
”The district really needs to think about and just be honest with whether they’re going to address these issues in order to make sure that students can return safely in person,” Lin said.
As Hite detailed the return-to-class plan, Alissa Wise texted with a group of parents from Lea Elementary, where her daughter will be a second grader, spitballing ideas about getting small groups of children together at rotating houses to do schoolwork on remote days.
Wise, who works at a nonprofit, feels lucky to be able to work remotely, but knows that not everyone has that luxury. And she worries about what happens when she has a can’t-miss meeting for her job and her daughter needs help with schoolwork.
Ultimately, though, she feels her middle-class family will be fine, if strained. But there are larger questions about how families make it through a pandemic that are not going away any time soon.
“As a society, we just get so many of our priorities wrong,” said Wise. “There’s just so many deep failures that are magnified a million times by this pandemic, and that hit me in a new way with this plan.”