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For Many Parents, Sending Their Kids Back To School -- Or Keeping Them At Home -- Is Bittersweet

Peter Medlin
Kindergarteners work in their MakerSpace lab at the STEAM Academy at Haskell Elementary in Rockford, before the pandemic.

Jeanine Szostak wanted to make the best of a scary situation. COVID-19 had just shut down schools and her DeKalb middle and high school kids were stuck at home with her trying to help them get their footing with online learning. 

“I had these grand plans of us sitting together at the dining room table, bonding, laughing as we’re doing a group project with ice cubes sparkling in our drinks and sunlight filtering through the windows," she said, "but they actually had a completely different idea. And so I worked at the dining room table, and they worked in their bedrooms with the blinds drawn, in their beds, lights off.”

Even if it wasn’t the family learning paradise Szostak imagined, she said she was able to bond with her children in a way that she probably wouldn’t have been able to without the pandemic-induced time together.

And, recently, it made her toss and turn at the prospect of them returning to school in-person.

“My kids were very split in the beginning, one leaning towards wanting to go back, one that didn't want anything to do with it,” she said. “But, they both are really glad that they've got to go back and have that routine and have that connection with their friends and their teachers.”

And she said the first time she got to see the marching band perform live again, she cried.

Mary is a DeKalb mom with three kids in the district, from preschool all the way to high school. Two of her kids are on 504 plans for students with disabilities. Like many students, her high school son also has struggled with depression during COVID, which made it challenging for him to engage and ask questions online.

“He just couldn't connect remotely,” she said. “So when he started to go back two days a week, we started to see a huge improvement. And he was kind of excited about school.”

Stephanie Renee has three kids in the district and has been as cautious as possible during the pandemic. Just before schools shut down, her young daughter was hospitalized and nearly died of influenza.

When DeKalb Public Schools announced plans to bring back students in person, Renee decided to keep her kids home. It was a tough call, particularly because she sees the value of her kids getting to see their friends and talk face-to-face with their teachers.

“One of my kids, unfortunately, gets ignored every time he asks for help," said Renee, "and it took me a minute to catch on to what was happening."

She said she doesn’t blame the teachers. She knows they’re working as hard as they can to simultaneously help in-person and online students.

“If they gave me the option to do e-learning [next fall], I'm going to opt out for e-learning," she said. "Again, the pandemic isn't over. It's nowhere near over.”

Renee cited schools in the area that recently had to quarantine students -- and in some cases, switch back to remote learning -- after positive COVID cases.

It hasn’t been all bad. She said her kids have opened up to her more than ever. And, academically, her son who wears hearing aids has greatly benefited from getting to rewind and re-listen to online classes.

Tina Holtz is a teacher. Once she came back to school in person, she started to feel better about her 5th-grade daughter Fiona returning in-person in Sycamore. Fiona also really wanted to be back at Southeast Elementary.

“I wanted to be a 5th-grader and be social and have a friend group and a squad," Fiona said. "It really didn’t happen for me when I was remote learning. But now that I'm back to school, I have a squad.”

Tina said her daughter’s first reading unit after coming back in person was on poetry. It inspired Fiona to write her own poems about how it feels to go back to school after a year of learning from home -- poetry that just earned her 1st place at a local 4-H competition.

“A wave of youth trickling in once more to a tall building. My world is spinning, but I love to be dizzy,” reads Fiona’s aptly-named poem, “Going Back To School.”

Many families have lost loved ones during the pandemic. Most schools are still figuring out what exactly next year will look like. And many parents hope they can stay this close to their kids -- without having to be locked inside together.