Back to School

Educators, students and parents struggle to meet the challenges of school, both on-site and at home, during a pandemic.

From left, Kingston (age 10), Jackson (age 8) and Chloe (age 14) Shimasaki of Des Moines are among the many local families struggling with how the pandemic has disrupted schooling.

Writer: Dawn Sagario Pauls
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

A new school year is typically fraught with anxiety and apprehension.

This year, the global pandemic is sending stress levels skyrocketing, with educators, students and families trying to navigate school safely amid constant change and uncertainty.

For the Shimasaki family of Des Moines, having a retired public school teacher in the house has eased the burden, says Sarah Jane Shimasaki of her mother-in-law, Esther.

“If this was not the case, we would be struggling with who would be with our kids during this time,” Shimasaki says. The family has three children: Chloe, 14, Kingston, 10, and Jackson, 8.

As of press time in mid-September, Shimasaki had many concerns about their kids returning to school buildings: “My greatest hope is that no matter what, the safety, security and welfare of my children is in the forefront of everyone’s mind.”

In addition to safety concerns, parents are worried about making up the learning kids missed last school year, says Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association. “But the first thing we need to do is check on [children’s] social and emotional well-being,” she says.

Kelli Hill, a child/adolescent clinical psychologist and director of clinical services at Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center, has seen children’s responses shift as the pandemic has dragged on. At the beginning, she saw more anxiety. A stretch of hopelessness and isolation followed as the realization set in that this wouldn’t be a short-term situation. August brought more uncertainty and increased anxiety about the upcoming school year.

“I’m really focusing with kids on what they can control,” Hill says, such as avoiding peers they see on social media who aren’t wearing masks or are hanging out in large groups.

Return to Learn

For many families, virtual and hybrid learning, technology support, child care and meeting basic needs such as school lunches are some of the major issues.

In Iowa, some districts and the state have disagreed over local school boards’ authority to reopen schools. For example, Des Moines Public Schools—citing safety concerns—defied state regulations and began its school year with virtual learning for a majority of students.

A small percentage of youths, including some at Central Campus at 1800 Grand Ave., are attending classes in person. At press time, the school, which provides various academic and career opportunities, was offering hybrid courses. The high schoolers were reporting to the building one day a week with many receiving additional instruction online the rest of the week.

In mid-September, about 200 students were attending in person, with 19 hybrid teachers and four associates in the DMPS buildings every day. “Because we are project- and lab-based in the majority of our classes, teaching fully virtual doesn’t allow students to demonstrate understanding of certain essential competencies,” says Tascha Brown, director of Central Campus.

The school implemented a variety of safety measures due to COVID-19. Class sizes were reduced to help keep students 6 feet apart. There is assigned seating, which is important for contact tracing, and all teachers have a seating chart.

Central Campus began the year offering all classes virtually, as well. Teachers can work from home or school. “Virtual was a much harder task,” involving coordinating students’ schedules at their home schools with Central Campus courses, Brown says. The shift to virtual was also challenging, as 75% of teachers are experts in their fields but don’t have teaching degrees or classroom experience.

“School in the COVID-19 era has caused teachers to rethink curriculum and prioritize essential skills and standards,” she says. “Supplying them with more tools, resources and supports has been key to keeping people moving out of professional paralysis.”

Tough DecisionsAll Posts

A parent herself, Brown understands the tough decisions families are facing. Her own children are in grades eight and 10, and she also has a 3-year-old. Her oldest is taking two Central Campus classes and is open enrolled to the DMPS Virtual Campus (an online high school), so she can monitor and support his learning, she says.

Her eighth-grader is currently attending school in a hybrid model, she says. “She’s at that critical age of finding friends and finding her place in the world,” Brown says. “COVID has really impacted this.”

The back-to-school decisions have been “nothing shy of agonizing this year,” says Sarah Riley of Des Moines. Her 17-year-old son, Reece Riley, is a junior at Roosevelt High School.

“We opted for hybrid for our high schooler with the belief that the district would close if, and when, it was necessary in order to keep our child safe,” Riley says. “Had we known at the time of our decision in July what we know now regarding how the state is handling safety precautions around COVID, we would have chosen completely online learning.”

In this type of uncertain school environment, it’s critical parents communicate their needs to teachers, Cobb with Iowa State Education says. “I know that parents want to get this just right for their students,” she says. “They need to give themselves grace.”


Tools and Techniques for Parents

To help lessen COVID-related stress among children, Kelli Hill, a child/adolescent clinical psychologist and director of clinical services at Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center, suggests parents establish solid routines, which will help create predictability in a time of uncertainty. Specifically:

  • Establish a consistent bedtime and wake-up time.
  • Create a consistent schedule for eating breakfast, getting dressed and making time for homework.
  • Schedule in breaks, lunch and time outside.
  • Post the schedule, including pictures for younger children.

Mental health experts also emphasize that it’s important to reassure children that they’re safe. The Child Mind Institute, a national nonprofit organization focused on addressing learning disorders and children’s mental health, offers additional ideas for parents on how to talk with their children about COVID-19 and related challenges:

  • Welcome your kids’ questions, and then do your best to answer them honestly but without overwhelming them with too much information. It’s OK to say that you don’t know the answer.
  • Convey a calm and resilient emotional tone.
  • Encourage your children to share how they feel about the coronavirus and their current school situation.
  • Practice self-care, modeling what that is for your children.
  • Emphasize your family’s safety precautions and involve your kids in those efforts, such as letting them choose masks or hand sanitizer. Children feel empowered when they know what to do to keep themselves safe.
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