Flor Efscarcega’s daughter will be starting first grade in West Haven next week. Much like last year, her daughter’s backpack is ready, she has an outfit picked for the first day and she has arranged for after-school care. The only difference this year is that her daughter’s outfit features a mask and her after school care begins at noon.
West Haven, like most school districts across Connecticut, has opted to return to school in a hybrid model — combining at-home distance learning and in-person classroom instruction.
Instead of alternating days, however, West Haven has decided to send students home before lunch to avoid possible transmission of COVID-19 in the cafeteria setting and the necessary mask removal that eating would require.
“I thought we would get a survey and would have some input,” Efscarcega said. Instead, according to Efscarcega, the district only reached out after settling on the half-day model.
“I would have wanted full day with just a focus on reducing class sizes rather than less hours,” she said.
As a mother with a full-time job at West Haven Child Development Center, Efscarcega explained that she can’t be there to pick up her daughter at noon. So, instead of returning home to avoid the added risks contracting the virus, her daughter will be heading to an after-school care program with a different set of children and a different instructor than she has in school.
“I’m concerned about the different groups. I think it should be the same kids,” Efscarcega said. “It should be the same teachers and the same centers. Now if one gets infected they all do.”
Efscarcega is not the only parent with these concerns. In fact, her concerns echo that of Beth Bye, the state’s commissioner of Early Childhood.
“The hybrid model will be an incredible strain on children and families. In all honesty, I don’t get it,” said Bye in an interview with the CT Examiner last week. “There is widespread panic amongst parents” as September approaches — not panic about the spread of COVID-19, but families trying to balance work and childcare when schools are no longer open full time.
The challenge of the hybrid model
Districts across Connecticut have adopted a variety of hybrid models for instruction this fall, but all combine some time in the classroom and some time at home — or at an alternative care program — learning remotely.
It’s seen by many as the middle-of-the-road option, a compromise between returning to school five days a week, seven hours a day and fully remote learning.
“Districts are trying to balance the teacher fear with the parent need. It’s a little bit of a win-win for everybody,” said Mikyle Byrd-Vaughn, executive director of the LULAC Head Start in New Haven.
But it’s also a lose-lose, Byrd-Vaughn admitted.
“Hybrid is not a great model. Children need consistency,” she said.
When Byrd-Vaughn first began planning in May the reopening of LULAC Head Start, she said she polled the parents, expecting to see some mix of interest in returning full-time and part-time. Instead she met almost universal interest in returning full-time.
“Parents didn’t want hybrid. I was surprised to some degree, but it makes sense. Families need childcare,” she said.
According to Byrd-Vaughn, it really was the teachers, not the parents, who were the most concerned about opening up again.
“Teachers were uncertain, so we eased them in. We allowed them to start part-time and had two shifts of staff,” she said. “It wasn’t until we reopened that teachers trusted it was safe. Once you get past the initial weirdness, then you’re back and excited.”
And that’s much the story in board of education meetings this summer, said Byrd-Vaughn. Most parents are willing to send their children back to class, and many teachers are concerned about what that means for their own health and safety.
“I would say to school districts, that you need to try in some way to have teachers on-site, and it’s not hybrid,” Byrd-Vaughn said. “If anything, it’s a few shorter days to ease in, or starting with younger grades and phasing in the older grades. All their planning is theoretical right now. It’s not until you go into the building and see it in action, suit up and feel what it will be like that you can feel comfortable.”
An impossible ask for childcare facilities
As childcare facilities have reopened, the officials have emphasized the prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff.
The entire program is designed to keep children interacting with the same small group of other children each day, said Patrice Farquharson, Post University Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education and Child Studies and Executive Director of the West Haven Child Development Center.
With West Haven and other neighboring school districts opting for a hybrid model, Farquharson is grappling with many requests for childcare from families of elementary school age children.
“I’m really trying to see what we can do about this, but those children are coming from all different places and classrooms and interacting with different kids,” Farquharson said. In other words, accepting these students into part-time care would go against exactly what they’ve worked for this spring and summer.
Accepting school-age students gets even more complicated if those children have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or special needs. These children would still need to receive physical therapy, occupational therapy or other special education resources during what would have been school hours. That means different teachers and therapists coming into the school, entering multiple classrooms and potentially exposing many more children.
Therefore, Farquharson will not be accepting school-age children into her program.
“It’s just a lot to think about. We are very self-contained. They come here all day and then they go home, hybrid is the opposite of that,” she said.
A hardship for parents and children
In addition to being a strain on working parents, hybrid education will tax older children who may be tasked with babysitting while also attempting remote learning and disorient younger children who will have constantly changing schedules, Byrd-Vaughn said.
“My biggest concern about hybrid is that older children in families will become caregivers on a regular basis. For many families it may be the only option,” she said. “Children can be resilient, but what we are asking them to do right now we would not ask an adult,”
Byrd-Vaughn fears that hybrid – or full remote – learning will set high school and middle school children back as they may need to use more of their formerly school-time to assist around the home, and younger children may see regression as they lose structure and key socialization.
Her own children have seen this first hand.
“My completely healthy, no development delays whatsoever going-to-be kindergartner began to stutter and have anxious behaviors in May,” she said. “I was focusing on work and helping my older kids with school and he was getting pushed aside.”
Since her son returned to preschool full-time in June, and has structure back in his life, he has blossomed again.
“I would urge school to not see this as a teachers versus families thing,” Byrd-Vaughn said. “We have to be compassionate and we have to remember we are in this together. We need compromises that actually work for everyone.”
Both Byrd-Vaughn and Farquharson said they want school districts and teachers to reach out to them, to learn from what models have worked for their childcare centers and what lessons they have learned. Both facilities have yet to have a single case of COVID-19.