Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Philadelphia in March, Rayannah Mitchell has been a mother, teacher at Mastery Charter School, and tutor to her two children who attend Chester Arthur in South Philadelphia. When the school year starts, her older child will begin high school at the Science Leadership Academy.

Her feelings about school resuming in the fall are conflicted.

“As a parent, I don’t want to send my children. I do have a teenager. I know he wants to venture out and experience high school,” Mitchell said. “On the flip side, I’m concerned about my students. When it comes to hygiene, some of them are not the best at it.”

Temwa Wright, who has two children at Science Leadership Academy Middle School, is tired of juggling homeschooling and work. She supports moving forward with a hybrid-education model but remains cautious about the challenges that lie ahead.

“I think the kids are missing socialization, and I think parents are fatigued with having the responsibilities to coeducate kids at different levels,” said Wright, executive director of the nonprofit Pamoza International. “I respect the plan that the school district has put together. It’s very comprehensive, but proof is in the implementation. When September comes, I won’t be surprised if the plan shifts, especially as it’s a constantly changing world with COVID-19 updates.”

Temwa Wright, 38, of West Philadelphia, at her home on July 21. She has three children, two of whom are school age: Samuel, 11, will enter the sixth grade, and Emmaneul, 13, will enter the eighth grade.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Temwa Wright, 38, of West Philadelphia, at her home on July 21. She has three children, two of whom are school age: Samuel, 11, will enter the sixth grade, and Emmaneul, 13, will enter the eighth grade.

How to safely and smartly start the school year is a hotly debated subject, and local schools are exploring a world of options. On one hand, reopening schools in-person while the number of new coronavirus cases is still high puts students’ and adults’ health at risk. But prolonged social isolation poses its own risks to kids’ health and learning.

The Philadelphia School District announced earlier this month its plan to reopen in September with a hybrid of in-person and online education. New Jersey’s school districts are still developing reopening plans, but Gov. Phil Murphy announced that the state will spend millions to ensure all students have access to remote learning. Many organizations are coming up with guidelines to help schools plan and prepare, but families still feel split.

Schools not resuming in-person isn’t ideal for kids. Among many reasons, some families rely on school lunches, some kids don’t feel safe at home, and some parents need to work and don’t have access to child care or the time to home-school. Studies have shown that social isolation can lead to mental-health problems. Plus, kids use interaction with their peers as a way to grow emotionally and socially, which can’t be replicated virtually or with parents.

“Peer interaction is important for child development. In preschool, kids learn how to share, play, and take turns. As they progress into elementary school, they learn how to develop friendship and emotional skills,” said Jessica Kendorski, chair of the department of school psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and a mother of two school-age kids. “Social interaction is especially important during adolescence — this is when their peer groups shape their identity.”

But experts also point out that in-person schooling, if not executed safely, could lead to other mental-health concerns.

“Maybe they come back to school, and a student, teacher, or relative passes away — now we’re dealing with a traumatic stress response,” said Terri Erbacher, a school psychologist at Delaware County Intermediate Unit and professor of school psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 3.3 million people over age 65 live in a household with a school-age child, and infections could spread to older and other high-risk individuals, even if coronavirus rates among kids are low. A new study from South Korea found that kids under age 10 transmit the coronavirus less often than adults do, while kids between 10 and 19 may spread the virus more easily within a household compared with other age groups. However, it is unclear whether the children studied actually infected other secondary cases.

Still, the rates of coronavirus transmission from children are not zero, and given the health risks for children, teachers, staff, and their families, experts emphasize safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a joint statement with the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and the American Association of School Administrators emphasizing science and safety toward decision-making.

“Above all, safety first. The academy does not support opening schools if it puts people’s lives at danger,” said Arthur Lavin, a pediatrician and chair of the AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. “We talk about the mental-health cost of attending school — the mental-health costs of someone dying is much more.”

For many families, the most important thing is weighing the risks and taking a measured approach, and identifying rates of coronavirus transmission in the community is a necessary first step.

“There is pressure to get kids back to school when we’re not aware of what the coronavirus numbers will look like a month from now,” Erbacher said. “Since entering the green phase, numbers have increased a bit. So let’s start planning virtual, and we can reconsider as we go. If the numbers look good, then we can plan on moving toward in-person school.”

Mitchell, the South Philly mother and teacher, has noticed that some of her students have thrived while being home-schooled, but she knows not every family has a strong support system. Wright also believes that kids being at home increases education inequity.

“If you can’t control the education environment, you lose kids in the gap,” Wright said.

In the long run, the decision to resume school in-person will continue to evolve.

“Schools are going to have to be flexible and respond to new information,” Lavin said. “Each day, the school system has to look and see whether the approach is working. The same set of questions [whether to stay open] need to be asked on the second day of school, or the 10th day, or the 100th day.”