Joshua Claybourn is leaning toward sending his kindergarten daughter to in-person classes at a private school next month. Holly Davis' sixth-grade daughter will learn online, though the family has not yet decided what to do for school for a teenage daughter who requires special accommodations for hearing problems and dyslexia and another who's starting college.
As they decide how their children will learn this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, parents are anxiously weighing the benefits of in-person instruction against the risks schools could shut their doors again or their children could contract the virus and pass it on.
"To say we are stressed might be an understatement," said Davis, of Noblesville, Indiana, whose family is self-isolating after one of their daughters was exposed to COVID-19 at a cross country meet. "We're being forced to make impossible decisions."
Across the country, chaos and disarray have marked the start of the school year as families await directives from district officials and, where they have a choice, make agonizing decisions over whether to enroll their children online or in person — often with very little guidance.
If their children are not in classrooms, parents will have to line up child care — or find the time to help their learn online. They have no idea if it will be safe to send their children to school — or whether the school doors will open at all or stay open if someone is diagnosed with the virus.
Further complicating decisions, in some public school districts, children who opt for online instruction won't be able to participate in in-person extracurricular activities.
The decision over how children will be schooled is particularly fraught in low-income areas and communities of color that bear the double burden of being places both most affected by the pandemic and ones where students could benefit most from being in school, said Dr. Kiran Joshi, senior medical officer and co-lead of the Cook County Health Department, which serves 2.4 million people around Chicago.
"I think there's clearly a lot of value in in-person instruction," Joshi said. "I think, though, that that has to be balanced with the need to control the pandemic."
Many parents dread a return to what millions faced this spring, when they tried to work while their children attended online school.
About 70 percent of Americans think schools should open in the fall, though most of those think it should happen with restrictions, according to a recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs. Only 8 percent say K-12 schools should operate normally. Mask wearing has been a particular sticking point in many places. In Springfield, Illinois, scores of people rallied against a requirement that schoolchildren wear face coverings while attending class.
Claybourn, father to the kindergartner, is weighing his options. He said it's not clear yet what his local public school system in Newburgh, Indiana, would do if a someone caught COVID-19. The private school he's eyeing said it would close only the child's classroom, and only for two to three weeks.
The public school also plans to offer an online option, but to Claybourn, an attorney who works outside of his home, "that is not a solution because ultimately requires someone with the kids all day."
He also wants his daughter to have the routine, friendships and interactions with teachers that come with in-school learning.
"I will never be as good of a teacher as the trained professionals," he said. "I understand the concern about kids contracting and spreading the virus, but for me the larger concern is the prospect of not being in school for an extended period."
For Davis and her husband, health concerns and the threat that schools could close at a moment's notice pushed them to choose online learning for their youngest daughter, rather than a hybrid program that would include some in-person learning.
Davis said she is at high risk for developing serious illness if she gets infected.
"Until they figure out what's going on (with the virus), let's take one kid out of the system," she said.
A resurgence of cornavirus infections in much of the United States is adding to the uncertainty.
The U.S. leads the world with more than 4.1 million confirmed infections and more than 146,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, more than 15.7 million infections and more than 640,000 deaths have been reported.
Experts say those figures understate the true toll of the pandemic, due in part to limited testing.