Back-to-School Angst During COVID-19

By: Elyse Hoffenberg 

Contributing Writer

Lately, every time I bump into an acquaintance or friend, the question inevitably arises, “will you send your kids back to school or will they remote learn?”  It is an issue weighing on every parent’s and even some grandparents’ minds. For me, the question is particularly worrisome and distressing as I sit on my local elementary school district’s Board of Education.

Back in 2016, I felt driven to run for local office by a national narrative that sought fresh voices to challenge the status quo. As a former prosecutor who has served on a variety of local committees and commissions, public service has always been a cornerstone of my life. Advocating as an elected official felt like a logical next step to roll up my sleeves and with three daughters in the local elementary school district, that seemed like the place for me to get to work making my community better than I found it. Little did I know that running for local office would require me to make decisions that would potentially have life and death consequences.

Governor JB Pritzker decided to cede the decision on whether schools can learn in-person to the local control of each district’s Board of Education. The state kindly provided some guidance but there is plenty of wiggle room. I respect and appreciate the idea of local control. I also understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution on  how to keep students and staff safe, while also ensuring students are provided the education they require and be fiscally responsible to all stakeholders. There is no precedent or playbook as to how to accomplish what feels like a Herculean effort under the circumstances.

The magnitude and gravity of the situation has driven me to consume one Covid-19 study after another. I relentlessly harass my two close friends who conveniently happen to be virologists, one of whom sits on a neighboring elementary school district’s Board of Ed, for their perspective on the value of the information. I find myself emailing and texting my superintendent multiple times a week; peppering him with thoughts and suggestions. I keep a notebook that I update daily with the number of cases in all of the surrounding municipalities, as I fear the rate calculated for my county does not truly reflect the rate of infection in my community. 

When I ran for my seat on the Board of Education, I told anyone willing to listen that I wanted to be the mouthpiece of the community. While I meant that then and still do, it has never been more difficult to read some of the emails I have received. Everyone is worried. Worried about getting sick. Worried about missing out on important educational milestones and childhood experiences. Worried about who will watch their kids while they work. There are no simple solutions or easy answers to address these wholly legitimate concerns. 

My school district is currently offering parents two learning-platform options. Parents can opt for the hybrid platform, where students attend school in person for two full days and remote learn for the other three. Parents may also choose to have their children attend the remote school where children elearn entirely from home. Neither platform is superior to the other and both have their drawbacks. Just like so much in today’s Covid-19 impacted world, the benefits and costs must be weighed when determining which option is the most suitable.

As for my family, all three of my daughters will learn remotely  for the foreseeable future.  There are too many unknowns, I am personally risk averse, and my spouse and I have the luxury of working from home. I suspect that my children’s generation are likely to work from home as employers begin  to recognize they can reduce operational costs. 

We may as well iron out the challenges of working remotely now so my children are better equipped for success as adults.  When my children were babies they would go through difficult phases. I recall one particularly memorable period when my youngest spent months not sleeping for more than two hours at a time. I would rock her in my arms thinking of the old adage, “the days are long but the years are short.” At the time, I did not think I would ever get a full night of sleep again. It is now eight years later and I miss those nights.  These days are not easy but we will make the best of them. There will surely come a time when I will wish to have my children back home and under my roof safe and sound so I will choose to make the best of these strange days. I will just remind myself that the days are long but the years are short.

Elyse is an attorney and the Chairperson of the La Grange Board of Fire and Police Commission as well as a member of the La Grange District 105 Board of Education.

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