School Daze

Jason E. Kaplan
Robin Moody with her sixth-grader, Gabriel, and daughter Miriam, who is in second grade

While educators, politicians and scientists debate the risks and benefits of in-person schooling, students, parents and businesses feel the pain.

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Robin Moody suffered a humbling experience.

The director of the Oregon Health Forum spent an anxious summer following the whiplash saga of school openings. Would her children’s instruction be held in person? Virtually? Or some sort of hybrid? When state guidelines eventually made it clear that Portland public schools would not reopen for in-person instruction, Moody settled in, hunkered down and spent the remaining weeks of summer preparing her home and family for virtual school.

She carved out dedicated learning spaces for the children, a daughter entering second grade and son moving into sixth. She and her husband assembled workstations and created computer shortcuts to make logging into class seamless.

Things seemed to be going well until Moody logged on to ParentVUE, an online parent/teacher communication portal, to check grades. “My son had all Fs,” she recalls. “I know transitioning into middle school is always hard, but that was a watershed moment.”

In response Moody stepped into a “school quarterback” role. She developed a game plan of multiple daily check-ins with her kids and enhanced communication with teachers. She found tutors for her son and researched extracurricular enrichment pods for her daughter.

But Moody did not step back from her leadership position at work or her pursuit of a Ph.D. from Portland State University. The crunch is taking a toll. “My productivity has not improved,” she admits. “I’m pushing a lot more work into the evening hours after the kids go to sleep.”

A similar story is playing out in households across the state and the country. Working parents, whose professional success relies on not having kids at home for long stretches of the day, are scrambling. Some are leaving the workforce entirely.

Unsurprisingly, most of those dropouts are female. Women represent 80% or 865,000 of the 1.1 million workers who left the labor force in September nationwide, according to the National Women’s Law Center, assumedly to supervise schoolchildren. The resulting damage is driving the first female recession, also known as the “shecession” according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, the negative effects of online school, learning loss, social and emotional isolation, or straight-up truancy are mounting. And businesses filled with distracted, overburdened employees are feeling the pain.

This disruption is bigger and more intense than when the pandemic first shut down schools and business operations in March.

Monique Rice, co-owner of Effective Web Solutions, admits that, at first, work productivity was good. After the shutdown, she sent her 20 employees home from their Vancouver, Wash., headquarters with an office chair and a computer to continue working. The computer tracked productivity with software designed to take a screenshot every 30 seconds.

“To be honest, initially everyone seemed even more productive,” she reports. Fast-forward to today and Rice estimates that productivity slid about 25% because of child carechallenges. Projects take longer to complete and people are harder to reach on Zoom or Slack. “Our company is founded on collaboration,” she says. “Now we are missing that synergy.”

Rice reports that Effective Web Solutions’ client base of small businesses, beauty salons, restaurants, gyms, medical offices and the like are also suffering. “Everyone is dealing with the same thing,” she says. “Everyone hears kids screaming in the background.”

Because of the disruption to students, parents and business, Rice strongly supports schools reopening for in-person instruction. It is a position held by many parents, politicians and even cautious scientists. The Atlantic posted an article in mid-October proclaiming evidence that shows schools are not COVID-19 super-spreaders. The New York Times reports similar findings according to data from random testing in the U.S.

In the U.K., a Public Health England study found very low numbers of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools between reopening in June and closing for the summer in July. During that time, only 0.01% of pre-schools and primary schools had an outbreak, with 70 children and 128 staff affected. Over the same period, 25,470 cases were recorded in England as a whole.

Groundwork has been laid to make in-person instruction more likely in Oregon. There are already approximately 50,000 students in some form of in-person school throughout the state, according to the Oregon Department of Education. The state’s recently relaxed standards and lowered benchmarks could open elementary schools in some more districts, providing relief to harried families.

Of course, this policy comes with some risk. As of mid-November, there had been 122 in-person-instruction-associated COVID-19 outbreaks in the state, according to the Oregon Health Authority. However, the risks of virtual school to students are greater: learning loss; missed social, emotional and mental health support; and hunger, as they are cut off from an important source of nutritious, free meals.

But not everyone is convinced in-person school is a great idea.

Ashley Robertson, human resources coordinator for Insomnia Coffee Co. and Dapper & Wise Roasters, remains skeptical. She supports a staff of 75, mostly part-time employees at five retail locations. Pre-COVID-19, Robertson also worked part-time, which gave her flexibility to parent her two kids.

spot0121 IT4A9130Ashley Robertson with her two daughters, photographed on the front steps of her home in Hillsboro  Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Pandemic demands upended her schedule. Robertson started working full-time to create and implement a COVID-19 handbook. She now spends her work hours overseeing the new policies with customer-facing staff. Robertson admits her eight-hour workdays are stretching out to 10 or 11 hours as she juggles breaks and lunch hours to coordinate schoolwork and support her children.

“I’m always on,” she says. “It’s ironic because a big part of my job is promoting work-life balance.”

Sending her third and sixth graders back to in-person school would certainly relieve some of that pressure, but Robertson is not on board. “I’m not a worrier, but I have concerns about brick-and-mortar school,” she explains. Her concerns include consistent and correct mask wearing.

“I cannot control other people,” she says. Those “other people” include her own child. “In July I took my third grader on her first shopping trip since this started , and she would not wear her mask correctly or stop touching surfaces.”

Robertson will probably not have to worry about in-person school any time soon, despite Gov. Brown’s recently relaxed standards. Infection rates are skyrocketing in Oregon and the country. And the Oregon Education Association, the state’s teachers union, is not on board.

“The Governor’s decision to hastily implement new, relaxed metrics will only serve to further disrupt education,” writes OEA president John Larson in a media release, “allowing districts to bring students back to the classroom before it is safe to do so and increasing the likelihood that our schools and communities will again be forced to lockdown in the future.”

So what are parents and businesses to do?

The answer, much like the national response to COVID-19, varies. There are some solutions for those who can afford it and are lucky enough to secure a spot. These include pay-for-play learning pods in private health clubs. One offering at Bethany Athletic Club, in unincorporated Washington County, takes 10 K-5 students from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $780 per student, per month.

That price is for club members only. Non-members pay $980.

Prices are comparable for a similar offering at Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, although the nonprofit, government agency does offer a shot at financial assistance.

Parents are finding each other on Facebook and the social network Nextdoor to create their own learning pods. If they want to hire a coordinator, Moody estimates they charge between $25 and $50 an hour to manage four to five students.

spot0121 IT4A1547Robin Moody’s children, Gabriel and Miriam, in the pod school on the lower level of their Southwest Portland home  Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Rice, of Effective Web Solutions, is toying with another idea: converting her unused office space into a school co-op so her employees can get back to work. “I have a 4,000-square-foot office with no one in it, and my landlord will not give me any breaks. Plus, I pay for employee parking permits,” she says. “It is a hard pill to swallow.”

The idea is still not fully baked. Of Rice’s many concerns, the most pressing is her company’s liability. She is uneasy envisioning waivers and daily temperature checks. “It is hard trying to come up with something that is good for everyone.”

So Oregon families watch, wait and, if they are wealthy or socially connected, cobble together a patchwork of babysitters, pods and private tutors. Meanwhile, over in Europe, schools have stayed open during the most recent lockdowns, while bars, restaurants, gyms and bowling alleys close to slow the spread of the deadly virus.

It is a trade-off many Oregonians, and Americans in general, clearly do not want to make.

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