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In classrooms or online, parents grapple with omicron school 'chaos'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you're a parent with school-aged kids, this COVID wave can turn your life upside down in the space of a day or even a few hours. Consider what Charles Stella of Bloomfield, N.J., lived through this week. His oldest daughter is in third grade.

CHARLES STELLA: Sunday afternoon we got an email from the school saying that they're closing the school on Monday so that the staff can gather and come up with a plan.

CHANG: Ugh, this better not mean more virtual learning, he tweeted with a stressed-out emoji. He lives in a small house, and he works from home, and they're all on top of each other when school is remote. Anyway, that night, before the school makes a decision about remote learning, Stella was talking to his wife.

STELLA: She was feeling kind of sluggish all weekend, like just, like, tired. She had been napping. So she's like - on Sunday night - I think it was, like, 8- or 9:00 at night - she's like, maybe I should test myself just in case.

CHANG: Her COVID rapid test? Positive - a breakthrough case. So his wife goes into isolation. He sleeps on the couch. And all this week, Charles Stella is working from home and solo-parenting both his third-grader and his younger daughter.

STELLA: You know, since she's only 4 years old, she's not learning anything. She's kind of bouncing from room to room, bothering my daughter while she's trying to learn, begging for snacks every 10 minutes. So (laughter)...

CHANG: The school eventually did decide to offer a virtual learning option, so his older daughter won't miss any schoolwork. But Stella was staring down a pretty daunting to-do list.

STELLA: I've got to put them to bed at night. I've got to cook the dinner. It's going to be a rough week. It's only been Day 1.

CHANG: And as hard as it is for Stella, he's one of the lucky ones who can work from home. The families Felicia Legardy serves cannot. She's the director of the Crystal Swann Learning Center (ph) in Detroit, and she stepped outside to talk to us during naptime.

FELICIA LEGARDY: I just had to take off my mask (laughter) so I don't sound muffled.

CHANG: Before the pandemic, she cared for kids ages 4 and under. But this week, she has older siblings, too - three school-age kids, including her own son. Their schools all went to virtual instruction this week as omicron surged.

Accommodating the older kids took some real work. They have totally different needs, and Legardy had to hire another staffer. But she says she had to do it for her families.

LEGARDY: If they didn't have us caring for their children while they're at work, the children would have been home alone.

CHANG: She says parents are afraid - for themselves, for their kids - but they have bills to pay, and their jobs are in-person. The stress is exhausting.

LEGARDY: I had a parent that came this morning. She was like, oh, my God; I just want to turn back around.

CHANG: We are focusing on parents at the end of this week, asking how they have figured out childcare, how they have reassessed COVID risk in the face of a more contagious variant and how they have coped as schools went remote or rolled out new COVID testing requirements, sometimes on really short notice.

DANIEL DOMENECH: Basically, it's chaos.

CHANG: Dan Domenech is the head of the School Superintendents Association (ph).

DOMENECH: We were at a point in October where things were looking as good as they have since this whole thing started, where we had - over 98% of our students were back in school in-person. And then all of the sudden omicron came along, and it just turned everything upside down.

CHANG: Domenech says schools want to stay in-person, and most districts have. But some just don't have the staff to do so.

DOMENECH: There's been so much pressure on teachers and principals that they're leaving in droves. So that's a major problem when a school district wants to be in-person, but all of a sudden teachers are calling in because they're sick or because they're afraid to go to work.

You know, the economic condition is also contributing to this. When teachers, who are low - lower paid to begin with, are now stressed out - and now they see that there are opportunities where they can make significantly higher salaries working from home.

CHANG: The stress that teachers feel in the classroom lots of parents are feeling at home. So we invited three moms to talk with us yesterday about how they're just trying to get through it.

CAROLINE TUNG RICHMOND: My name is Caroline Tung Richmond. I live in Frederick, Md., and my kids are 7 and 4.

LEAH D HUDNALL: Hi. I'm Leah D Hudnall (ph) here in the city of Cleveland, and my son is 4.

JILL JUILLIARD: I'm Jill Juilliard (ph). I'm in Nashville Tenn., and my daughter is 15.

CHANG: Well, I'd like to hear a bit about how each of your schools has responded to omicron so far and what you're doing (laughter) just trying to navigate the situation.

Caroline, I understand that your daughter's school is now in-person. There was absolutely no virtual option, right?

TUNG RICHMOND: Yup, it's in-person. And we've decided to pull her out this week, mainly because her little brother hasn't had a chance to get vaccinated yet. And since his daycare is closed, we're all just going to be home having fun together.

CHANG: And Jill, I understand that your daughter was in virtual schooling last year, but classes are still in-person at least for the moment.

JUILLIARD: Right. In Tennessee, there's a law now that we cannot go virtual, so she's in-person this year. Her first week back was this week after winter break.

CHANG: And how are you feeling about that?

JUILLIARD: Terrible - very nervous. You know, she's vaccinated. She's about to be able to get her booster. And she masks, but most teachers don't. It's everyone - every man for himself kind of right now.

CHANG: Leah, how about you? Because I understand that Cleveland schools, they went remote to start this month. Can you just walk us through, like, how your holiday break unfolded?

HUDNALL: Yes. So Cleveland schools started the school year this fall in-person. We did very well through this first semester until the very last day before winter break where I found out my 4-year-old had been exposed in his classroom. Of course, since he's 4, he's too young to be vaccinated. And I'm also six months pregnant. And we also have a 80-year-old, my grandfather, who doesn't live with us, but is here every day. So he's also in our pod, if you will.

And so unfortunately, we found out on Friday. And by Saturday night, my son picked up a very high fever. By, I would say, Monday, he tested positive at an at-home - with an at-home kit.

CHANG: How did your son recover?

HUDNALL: He had the mildest case in the household, even though he gave it to all of us, and we're vaccinated. After that fever broke, he was bouncing for the next 10 days and grooving and...

CHANG: While all of you were sick.

HUDNALL: While all of us were sick. And he was counting down till Christmas (laughter), so...

CHANG: (Laughter).

HUDNALL: Yeah, here we are. And so the school district made the decision to go remote for this first week. It's Thursday, and we still don't know if we'll be in-person next week or remote 'cause they said they're going to play it by ear. So that was how we spent our holiday.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, I know that a lot of parents, they really want their kids to be in school in-person; some because, obviously, parents, you know, have to go to work, and they can't really afford the childcare to stay at home to watch over their kids who are learning virtually; some because they have seen their kids learning suffer during virtual schooling since the beginning of the pandemic.

I am curious. In the times that your children have gone through remote learning, how did that go?

HUDNALL: For a preschooler who had never experienced a classroom setting before - so he entered school as a preschooler in the pandemic, so he didn't quite know that anything was wrong. I think the part that threw him off were not knowing the instructors or his teachers, his classroom aides. But this has been a much better experience because they did have that time together in-person. So now that they're back on the iPads, they know one another, and they have that camaraderie.

CHANG: Yeah, yeah.

Jill, how about you? How did remote learning go?

JUILLIARD: Well, in a way, I felt luckier. You know, she was 14 last year. She was pretty independent with her classwork like she had to be. But she saw all her friends going to school.

And it was her freshman year. I mean, that's a big monumental year. That was the most difficult decision I've ever had to make as a parent. And she got real depressed and had a lot of anxiety and - to where her doctor said she had lost 15 pounds.

CHANG: Oh, my goodness.

JUILLIARD: So we got her some online counselling, and that helped her out a bit. But this year, for her to go back, she was thrilled and immediately started thriving. And she's better now, but I do worry, with the new variant, what that's going to mean.

CHANG: Well, before we talk about omicron more specifically, I want to turn to Caroline. How did virtual schooling go for your daughter?

TUNG RICHMOND: I thought she had done OK, all things considered, but when I was talking to Connor, your producer, a couple days ago...

CHANG: Yeah.

TUNG RICHMOND: ...She heard me telling him that, oh, I think she did fine, and if we need to do virtual again, we'll weather it together. And she actually wrote a note and said, please let me go back to school please. So she is really feeling the missed connections. And she does do better learning in school.

CHANG: Yeah.

Given how contagious omicron is, what has it done to your calculations - I'm curious - this new variant?

TUNG RICHMOND: I was telling a friend, it feels like we're one sneeze away from getting omicron. And it's kind of put me in a bind. Should I just send them back because we might get it anyway?

My main concern is my son is 4 and not old enough to get vaccinated. And even though I've read studies that say the chances are, if he does get COVID, it will be a very mild case, and, you know, kids tend to bounce back, I can't help but think of worst-case scenarios.

And it's also concerning too that our local hospital is full. So I think at this point we're operating on this idea of if we're going to get it, maybe let's wait it out until medical services are more available.

CHANG: Yeah.

And Leah, is it kind of a different situation for you because sort of the worst in terms of getting COVID happened? You all got COVID.

HUDNALL: Well, it was my biggest fear. I live in Cleveland. We have, unfortunately, poor health outcomes when it comes to Black maternal health. I had been reading for months about pregnant women ending up in the ER, etc.

I think that we would send my son back in. My fear is that we'll replay this thing all over again. Someone will be exposed and trying to find a test, trying to get an appointment. But I'm going to try to take it, really, week by week like the rest of us 'cause if I go too deep into the future, I'll get anxious, and that's not good for anyone.

CHANG: We've been talking to three mothers struggling through the third academic year of this pandemic - Caroline Tung Richmond of Frederick, Md.; Leah Hudnall of Cleveland, Ohio; and Jill Juilliard of Nashville, Tenn. Thank you so much to all three of you. Hang in there. I don't know what else to say beyond that.

TUNG RICHMOND: Thank you.

JUILLIARD: Thank you for the opportunity.

HUDNALL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT'S "EVERYBODY DAYLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.