Pandemic Parenting Poll: Anxiety tops confidence about return to school

Parents who are "not at all confident" point to rising diagnoses in our state, concerns about all-day mask wearing, doubt that sanitizing efforts could ever be enough and fear about their children with other compromising health conditions.

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return to school, masks at school
This is likely what a return to school will look like for Arizona children.

Arizona parents have a lot of anxiety about their kids returning to school in coming weeks.

In a Raising Arizona Kids poll, only 19.5 percent said they were “very confident” about sending their kids back to on-site classrooms. Just shy of 55 percent said they are “not at all confident” about the return to school; the remaining 25.7 percent indicated they were “somewhat confident.”

More than 330 parents responded to the poll, which was deployed in the magazine’s Thursday, June 11 email newsletter. We asked the same question on our Facebook page, engaging nearly 3,000 parents.

On June 1, the Arizona Department of Education released its Roadmap for Reopening Schools, following Governor Doug Ducey’s May 28 announcement that schools were cleared to reopen in the fall. Since then, however, diagnoses cases of COVID-19 in Arizona have almost doubled, to nearly 40,000. As of today, 1,219 Arizonans have died from the new and largely confounding coronavirus.

In numerous public appearances and social media posts since the reopening roadmap was released, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman has emphasized the fluidity of the 360-page plan, acknowledging the difficulty of predicting the course of a pandemic that seems to change dramatically from week to week.

Avoiding another statewide school closure is a big priority behind the guidelines, which aim to “mitigate the risk of COVID-19,” Hoffman said during a June 3 public education town hall held over Zoom. “What we’re trying to be very clear to people about is there is not any way for us to 100 percent eliminate every risk. … When you bring together groups of children and groups of adults into our schools it’s never going to be risk-free. We’re doing everything we can to protect the health and well being of our students, of our staff, our teachers, and anyone who is entering the school campus.”

The document, compiled in partnership with the Department of Health Services and the School Nurse Association of Arizona, will be revised and amended as needed to be responsive to the needs of Arizona schools and families, she said. Local schools and districts have wide latitude in implementing the guidelines within their own student and staff populations.

Meanwhile, many schools and districts are polling parents on what they’d like to see implemented at school campuses. Some have already made decisions about shorter school weeks, staggered schedules and more.

Very confident

Not surprisingly, most comments in the “very confident” camp expressed the need for children to get back to the academic institutions, structure and social connections they missed during lockdown.

“I’m worried for my kids’ health, but also worried for their future, said Nichole Branson of Phoenix. In a joke-but-probably-not-a-joke she added, “I haven’t been able to help them with their math homework for the past two years!”

Tiffany Lay Gaskin of Phoenix has a kindergartner who is excited to start school and Gaskin plans to send her. But she will home school her son, who has a hearing loss, which “makes it impossible for him to understand and communicate with anyone wearing masks (they muffle sound and he reads lips).”

Abby Gagne of Scottsdale admitted she’s “OK with sending them back” but only “if schools require masks, with the exception of lunch and recess.”

Dave Oakeson of Chandler said he’s confident about sending his two children, ages 11 and 6, back to school. But because one of his children has asthma, a mandatory mask policy would trouble him. “I’m very concerned if they have to wear masks throughout the day, especially for [my] child with asthma. We are designed to need oxygen, and [it seems that] putting a long-term restriction on that flow does more collective harm than good.”

Not at all confident

Parents who are not at all confident point to rising diagnoses, concerns about all-day mask wearing, doubt that sanitizing efforts could ever be enough and fear about their children with other compromising health conditions. Some indicated they plan to continue schooling their children at home.

“There’s really no control on exposure,” said Blanca Heinrichs of Phoenix, whose children are 5 and 2. “Our governor has not implemented a requirement to wear a mask at all times when going places. People are acting as if the virus is completely gone and reality is that it’s only getting worse. … If they open up schools what reassurance do I have that the child sitting or playing next mine has practiced social distancing and hasn’t been exposed to someone [with the virus]? The unknown is scary.”

LaTasha Faison of Phoenix has a son with autism and asthma, which leaves him chronically ill. “He’s nonverbal and has trouble understanding why he’s wearing the mask and can’t touch everything he sees and, oh yeah he’s only 6!!” she told us. “He is not going to understand at all the new ‘rules’ to going back to school. I am terrified of sending him.”

Liza Allen of Gilbert answered “not very confident” because of the potential distraction and intrusiveness of procedures schools will have to try to implement to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

“My 14-year-old daughter and I sat down together to discuss and fill out the survey sent by our school district,” she said. “By the time we finished, she said, ‘What’s the point of going back if you can’t be around your friends or participate in extra-curricular activities?’ Luckily, she will be a sophomore and she thrived in the online learning environment [imposed statewide in March], so distance learning is not an issue for us.”

“I send my kids to school for the social interaction,” said Savanna Jo Carlisle, of Gilbert. “With there being barriers between desks, temp checks at the door, and no large group gatherings allowed, what is the point? I don’t want my kids to grow up being filled with anxiety and worry because of a virus and everyone’s reaction.”

Editor’s note: Our July magazine will include more comprehensive information on the status of school reopening plans, and will highlight suggestions our families indicated would give them greater confidence about the back-to-school season.