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Challenge: Back to School 2020

Sibling Rivalry: Weighing school options amid competing needs

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Back at the beginning of summer, when murmurs of ‘the plan’ for back to school began swirling, I puzzled over the options. Families have a host of unique circumstances to juggle when making this decision; there simply will not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution from one home to the next. But what happens when making the right choice for one sibling is at odds with the needs of another sibling? When one size doesn’t even fit children within the same household, how is a parent to choose?

Our youngest child Hilde has complex special needs and is considered medically fragile. Her lung issues in particular make any respiratory virus season dangerous. Throw COVID into the mix, and well, you get the picture. Like many in our situation, we hunkered down beginning in March. We made the choice to keep our then first- and fourth-graders home just a beat before the district decided to move all learning remote. By relying on grocery delivery and the goodwill of neighbors, we didn’t even step foot into a store for more than five months. Even as our state has begun reopening, we remain largely self-isolated; many activities still carrying too much risk in our situation. We have been making the tough, but necessary choices to keep everyone in our family safe.

As the pandemic stretches on, we grapple with how to make good choices to suit everyone in the family. What may have worked in the short term, looks different now that we see much longer-term considerations are needed. Hilde’s health and well-being are a priority, but so is the health and well-being of our school-age children. Frustratingly, what that means for one is not the same as for the others.

Having a child with needs like Hilde’s at home, I didn’t even know if sending my older two into school was a viable option. I have a pretty trusty gut, and can usually depend on it to lead me to the right decision. But, in this case, my gut wasn’t pointing me in one specific direction. I needed some expert input. Naturally, I started by asking my kids which option they would prefer. From a logistics standpoint, my family is fortunate to have the capacity to select any of the options available — in-person school, remote learning or a hybrid of the two. Both kids chose going back to school in-person without hesitation.

Next, I had a conversation with our pediatrician. He is well-versed in the health struggles we’ve faced with Hilde and her medical complexities, but he has also treated the other two. I felt he was able to give us an opinion that took all the pieces into account. It surprised me to discover that he leaned strongly to sending the kids back to school in person, feeling that another year of full distance learning would be traumatic for them - his word, not mine. He did stress the importance of implementing some extra precautions for our family, such as the kids making sure to wear masks at school as well as showering and changing clothes when coming back into the house.

Hilde’s pulmonologist concurred. He did stress that we should also have a plan in place for how to separate within the household anyone who does get sick — illnesses, though not specifically coronavirus, being inevitable. I also explained to him that currently my comfort was sitting with the 50 percent in school/50 percent virtual option. I felt like it cut down on some exposure, but allowed my kids to have the in-school experience they craved. The pulmonologist agreed.

Armed with good insight and actionable advice, I feel we can comfortably maneuver ‘Back to School 2020’. I also feel confident that if we need to adjust along the way, we will do so. In fact, as I type this, it’s been mandated that our district begin the year 100 percent remotely due to current virus conditions in our county. I must admit with today’s circumstances being what they are, I’m relieved that my decision has been preempted for the moment. It’s also good practice at moderating the slew of rival factors we all face in this complex and ever-changing situation. In my house, more than ever, compromise and flexibility are the only way we can negotiate a comfy fit for everyone this school year.

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