JEFFERSON — The School District of Jefferson saw a high rate of participation in a recent survey about potential formats for school in the fall, with 629 parents responding, representing a large percentage of the district’s students.
The upshot: Most families are eager to return to face-to-face instruction, but opinions are mixed on what kind of protections should be put in place to keep students and staff members safe while the pandemic still is ongoing.
District Superintendent Mark Rollefson said he was glad that such a large representation of the community responded to the survey, and that the district will take all of their concerns into account, along with guidance from county, state, national and international health authorities, as it tries to find the best path forward.
One thing is certain: No solution will make everyone happy.
About 30 percent of district students regularly take the bus, and 5 percent of bus riders’ parents said they would plan to arrange for alternate transportation to avoid social-distancing issues on the bus. However, 25 percent said they would still rely on bus transportation.
That’s a bit of a challenge for the district and transportation company, for to maintain social distancing as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and state and local health agencies, a normal-size school bus could only accommodate six students, Rollefson said.
Almost 95 percent of Jefferson families responding to the survey said they were comfortable sending their children back to the school buildings in the fall, but about half of respondents said their answer was dependent on whether there is a spike in COVID-19 cases in the state or county.
Asked about their preference for face-to-face versus virtual learning options, almost 86 percent of parents said they would prefer all face-to-face instruction. Around 10 percent said they would prefer virtual school under the pandemic conditions and 5 percent said they would go for virtual for some of their children, face-to-face for others.
Sixty percent of respondents said they would be comfortable sending their children back to school in the fall without conditions. A little more than 35 percent said they’d be comfortable as long as the district had additional protective measures in place such as social distancing, facemasks and extra sanitation efforts.
Almost 40 percent of respondents said they expected staff members to wear facemasks when school buildings reopened.
However, only a minority of parents were comfortable with their own children wearing face masks during school.
This question spurred an entire gamut of reactions from “I think everyone entering the building should be required to wear a mask” and “My children are prepared to wear masks at school” to “Absolutely not!” and “My child will be homeschooled if forced to wear a mask.”
The following are outtakes from some 40 pages of comments provided to the district by survey-takers.
Parents expressed various concerns, some of them backed by science and statistics, and some not.
A concern expressed by several parents that children would just “pick at the masks, making the problem worse” is borne out by many educators’ experience. So is the observation that children might not wear their masks correctly, thus negating their protective effects.
“Elementary-schoolers can barely keep on mittens,” one parent observed.
Other concerns parents shared lacked a scientific basis, such as the comment that “children can’t break down their oxygen like adults can.”
Several parents expressed concern that children wearing masks would be poisoned by “breathing in carbon dioxide.” According to respected health websites such as health.com, this should only be a problem with an airtight mask, not a breathable cotton or surgical mask.
At least one parent advocated face shields instead of masks, saying it would make it easier to see and hear students.
Another parent, however, strongly opposed face shields with the idea they would be more dangerous than face masks.
Several parents expressed the idea that regulations like mask wearing are more political than health-related.
One parent called COVID-19 “ridiculously overblown.”
One parent said masks should be available and accepted, but not required.
Some families expressed concerns that facemasks would present additional problems for students with asthma, or make it difficult for children with hearing difficulties to understand their teachers and classmates.
Another pointed out that students with sensory issues could have a hard time with masks, and others said that their children were afraid of masks or that masks could worsen a student’s existing anxiety.
A parent of an early childhood student with special learning needs said that their family was “desperate” to get their child the tools they need to succeed, including in-person interaction with a therapist, and they did not believe this intervention would be as effective with masks.
One parent said they had gotten dizzy and experienced headaches after wearing a facemask all day.
Some felt older students would be able to handle facemasks, but that they would be too distracting for younger elementary-schoolers.
At least one parent noted that only N95 masks are proven effective in keeping out the coronavirus.
This is true as an absolute, but the CDC and state and local health agencies all advocate wearing some type of face-covering, noting that cloth facemasks do offer heightened levels of protection.
They say that if you wear a cloth mask and are exposed to an unmasked person with COVID-19, you are 30-percent less likely to get the disease. If a person infected with COVID-19 wears a cloth mask and you are near them, you have have 95-percent protection. If both parties wear masks, the protection goes up to around 98 percent, and if people maintain social distancing at the same time, the protection rises to around 99.5 percent.
Information from the Mayo Clinic stated that the CDC did not initially recommend facemasks for everyone, but as health officials’ understanding of how the disease works has improved, the CDC and other health authorities have changed their position to advocate masks as the most effective preventive measure for the public.
Offering a different perspective, one parent said that while children are not the most at-risk for COVID-19, “there are too many possibilities of family members, etc., that are part of the high risk population for students at any level to not wear masks.
“Those immunocompromised, the elderly, etc. that these students interact with daily at home are the concern,” this parent continued. “So obviously, everyone should be in a mask.”
At least one parent said they were not keen on their children wearing masks and they didn’t think social distancing was a good idea.
Some parents advocated other protections that might be protective to a degree, but that studies have shown to be less effective in prevention than masks.
Enhanced handwashing and sanitization already are on the list of the district’s tools to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but studies have shown the disease is spread primarily through the air, not through contact with items people touch, so “contaminated surfaces” would not be as big a concern as initially believed.
Another idea that was popular at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States — that of taking people’s temperatures and watching for symptoms — could prevent some spread.
However, researchers since have discovered that people with COVID-19 tend to be contagious for days — even weeks — before showing any symptoms, so the identification of people in a later stage of the disease might not be very efficacious in keeping COVID-19 cases down in a community.
The same goes for some people’s suggestions that masks be used only by people with cold symptoms. However, cold symptoms are not necessarily a sign of COVID-19, and schools probably will be encouraging anyone with symptoms to stay home.
A greater threat might be the person who is asymptomatic, but contagious, singing next to you in choir.
A few people pointed out that COVID-19 is not deadly for everyone and that school-age children rarely are strongly affected.
One parent said that COVID-19 is “not a lethal sickness for our family,” adding, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Taking a different perspective, another parent noted that K-12 students “often have mild symptoms of COVID-19 infections and thus it could be easily overlooked or attributed to something else. This is a concern, as transmission will more easily occur without use of facemasks.”
The parent noted that the ripple effect of those students infecting others in the community could be very serious.
“Not comfortable with a solid yes or no until I know if there’s a second wave,” one parent said, a statement echoed by a few others.
One parent advocated an “encourage-and-reward” system, combined with an information campaign, to get students to buy into the idea of wearing masks.
Another said the district should require masks if COVID-19 numbers are sharply on the rise.
One parent offered a compromise idea aimed at keeping both sides (pro- and anti-mask families) happy while providing children with a face-to-face education.
This parent suggested that the no-mask students and the masked students could attend school in alternate weeks — although that person did not recommend a different set of teachers for the two groups.
Another question on the survey asked about whether the availability of day care would affect students’ return (not a problem for most).
A few questions dealt with potential hybrid schedules, all of which were disliked by a large segment (if not a majority) of respondents.
Finally, the district asked for any other input families wished to share.
Many commented they were tired of virtual school, that it didn’t work well for their children, and that it was tough on the older children whom they relied on to help the younger ones.
A couple of people had issues with students returning to school out of concern for the grandparents who cared for the children part of the time or who transported the children to or from school.