Back to school time brings strong emotions of worry and optimism

The past two months in education have been about logistics — schools rushing to plan and re-plan every detail, teachers training on brand-new procedures, parents and students tracking how their options are changing, sometimes from day to day.

ExploreLog In X Will kids wear masks in school? How serious is COVID for children? How are families coping with all of this stress?

But the first day of school traditionally is more than a matter of logistics. It’s a time of emotions: excitement for some, anxiety for others, nostalgia for parents. And as classes are finally about to start in this unique coronavirus-affected back-to-school season, those emotions are all over the place.

“The butterflies in my stomach are a little bit extra today,” said Emerson Academy Principal Landon Brown on the first day of the charter school’s online classes. “You want everything to go perfect as a principal. You want to control it, and this situation, you just absolutely cannot control.”

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As the first day of school arrives, the Dayton Daily News asked students, educators and parents to put aside some of the details for a moment and talk about how they feel.

The results? A mix of worries and optimism, caution and desire to get back to normal.

“This has certainly been a difficult five months emotionally,” said Brookville Superintendent Tim Hopkins, whose schools will welcome students back in-person on Wednesday. “Educators are by nature relationship people who seldom check their emotions at the door. The last couple of weeks I have run the full gamut of emotions and that’s often before the lunch hour.”

School leaders hopeful

State guidance to schools was frequently delayed or revised this summer because the COVID-19 pandemic has not been a static thing. New cases and hospitalizations decreased then surged again.

In Montgomery County, schools had already rolled out their plans when Public Health made its July 31 recommendation that all schools start online.

“There are always a range of emotions you feel at the beginning of a school year, but the circumstances under which everyone is returning to school this year only amplifies those,” Troy Superintendent Chris Piper said.

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Troy is offering a fully online option and a fully in-person option, with the potential to back off in-person classes if COVID-19 spread gets worse.

Piper called the upcoming school year challenging and “unlike anything we have faced before,” but he said the school district has worked hard, and he’s confident that students, teachers, staff and the community will rally to support one another.

“More than anything, though, I am hopeful,” Piper said. “I am hopeful that what we are going through will make both the Troy City Schools and schools across the nation better for when we get to the other side of this pandemic. I am also hopeful people will have a renewed sense of appreciation for what public school teachers provide for society.”

Hopkins didn’t sugarcoat the level of concern or how tough the decision-making process has been. He said worry and stress are “abundant” in schools, and he’s concerned about physical and mental health for staff and students.

As a leader, he said it’s been hard to answer questions for families and staff “with any level of confidence that you are giving a correct answer” or that the answer won’t change the next day. He thanked everyone from his wife to the school board to local residents who have sent notes of support.

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But like Piper, he said he feels great excitement to see children back in schools.

“I can’t promise anyone that it will go well. I just believe to my inner core that kids need to be reconnected with the school environment,’ he said. “Returning to school is not a one size fits all decision. I don’t have a crystal ball to know if my decisions and leadership have been right or wrong. But I do need to be at peace with knowing they were made with the best interest of children in the center.”

Parents have range of concerns

When Northmont schools posted their online school plan on Facebook, they got hundreds of responses that were a microcosm of nationwide parent opinion.

Some parents were grateful to have school online for health reasons and others were upset because they felt being physically back in school was best for their kids. Concerns included the quality of the online learning model, the availability of home internet access, scrambling to arrange daycare on short notice and access to sports or extracurriculars.

Credit: Marshall Gorby

Credit: Marshall Gorby

One parent of a first grader simply worried if her daughter would keep progressing, at the crucial moment when she’s learning to read.

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Amber Conlon, whose daughter attends Fairmont High School, said she’d be more worried if this happened years ago when her kids were younger.

“Having an older child, I feel different about it because she can take care of herself,” Conlon said. “She can be at home on her own doing online school if that’s what it comes to.”

Conlon said if students follow the schools’ health guidelines, she feels like they’ll be safe, but she acknowledged that doesn’t always happen.

“High schoolers should know what they’re doing. They know all the issues that are going on,” she said.

Amanda Check, a mother of four whose two oldest have started Vandalia-Butler schools, agreed that age makes a difference.

“I’m not worried at all about my oldest going back to school,” Check said of her fourth-grader daughter. “But I’m not confident with my kindergartener, because everyone has to wear a mask or shield, and she’s terrified by that. So I’m actually keeping her home.”

“I think it’ll go as smooth as it can,” Check said. “I’m just ready for school to start and be back to normal.”

Teachers worried, committed

Research has shown that COVID-19 has not hit children as hard as adults, but in order to have in-person school, the adults have to be there too, and those adults are concerned.

An recent Ohio Federation of Teachers survey showed 66.2% of respondents favored fully online school. A July poll of Ohio Education Association teachers found 69 percent don’t think schools can reopen safely this fall.

Brian Cayot, a Centerville teacher and president of the district’s teachers union said no options are perfect, but there are “safe and effective ways to open schools.” Centerville recently switched its plan from a hybrid system to fully online. Cayot said online classes will be a challenge, but with the plan now in hand, teachers have the next week to visualize it, ask questions and get ready to go.

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“Is it going to be the best on Day 1? Probably not,” he said. “But as we’re able collaborate with each other, talk to (other teachers) in the same grade level, talk in our teams, it’s going to be different than in the spring. … About 99.9% of all teachers will step up to the table and get it done.”

Michelle Saunders, a third-grade teacher at Emerson Academy, agreed with that opinion. On the first day of online classes Wednesday, she brought energy and optimism as she worked with her students in a live online session, pushing through technological problems.

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

“I feel excited. With new circumstances brings new opportunities to excel,” Saunders said. “I miss my students (in-person), but I will not let them down during this time. I will do whatever I need to do for them to excel. Their failure is not an option.”

Students to “make the most” of it

Avanttay Mack, who goes to Northridge, and Yhantg Irwin, who attends Stivers in Dayton, were making money with friends Thursday selling cold water bottles to passing cars at West Third and James H. McGee.

Mack and Irwin are a perfect example that school in the coronavirus era is not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Said Mack, “I’ll be happy if we do school at home because there won’t be a whole bunch of kids like at school and they can be annoying. You can focus more at home and you’ll probably get better grades.”

Said Irwin, “I don’t want to stay home. I don’t want all my brothers and sisters messing with me when I’m doing my work. That happened a little bit in the spring. Plus I want to see my friends more often.”

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Of six friends who talked about back-to-school feelings, Northridge student Antonion Reynolds was the only one who mentioned COVID-19, saying he wants to learn from home so he doesn't catch the coronavirus.

At Alter High School, teammates Branden McDonald and Joe Manfre were happy to be on the football practice field Thursday. Manfre said he’s very happy to return to school, saying fall at Alter has a special feel, as football, band and the dance team come together.

“I know a lot of people in other states are not getting the opportunity that Ohio is able to have (with football),” Manfre said. “I’m very grateful that we’re able to go back to school normally and have somewhat of a normal fall.”

McDonald said life in the pandemic “is like a new world.” He said he’s excited for his senior year, but sad that AlterFest has been canceled and homecoming might be called off, too.

“A lot of events are changing and we just have to get used to it,” McDonald said. “We have to make the most of what we’ve got.”

Back To School

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