Many schoolchildren in Louisa County will study from home at least three days a week this fall. Parents are caught in the crossfire as they scramble to find in-home care for younger children or alternative education options.
“If you’re expected to work five days a week from nine to five, yet your kid only goes to school two days a week from 8 to 3:30, what are you going to do?” said Jay Rachmel, whose two children attend Louisa County Public Schools.
The question “What am I going to do?” has run through many parents’ minds since the public schools announced that they would operate with a mix of in-person and computer-based instruction.
Students will be divided into two groups, with one group attending school on Mondays and Thursdays and the other, on Tuesdays and Fridays. The children will do coursework on computers at home on their off days. Both groups will stay home on Wednesdays while the schools do a deep cleaning. Another group of students will study from home five days a week and learn through the schools’ new Virtual Academy.
“Working in the health care field, I understand the seriousness of COVID-19 and the impacts it has,” said Jeanie Smith, who has a five-year-old daughter. “I want them [schools] to be able to keep the children safe.”
Smith said that she believes the new school schedule will keep the spread of the virus at bay by reducing class sizes and allowing for greater social distancing. However, she said that it does present the challenge of finding care for her daughter, who will be starting kindergarten this year.
“I actually looked into private schools,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I was actually very concerned.” Ultimately, she decided to stick with the public schools when she managed to find a babysitter.
“I can say it was a huge relief that I was able to find somewhere for her to be kept on the off days,” Smith said.
Private schools are not held to the same restrictions as public schools and can determine their own course of action to ensure the safety of their students, teachers and staff. Piedmont Christian School in Bumpass will operate five days a week in person.
“Our average classroom is probably seven kids, and we have eight classrooms,” said Katie Leach, the school’s principal.“It’s really easy for us to socially distance.”
To ensure social distancing, Leach said that desks will be six feet apart, and there will be plexiglass barriers between pre-k students at group tables. Children will not be required to wear masks, but adults will wear them when in close proximity to students, and there will be temperature checks every morning.
Leach said she and her board members considered the parents who work full time when making the decision to reopen five days a week.
“It was a hard decision to make, but we felt like it was the best decision for parents, teachers and students to be in school every day,” she said. “We understand the burden of having a full-time job and trying to help your kid work from home with the packets, and we know how many parents struggled with that in March.”
In the event the pandemic worsens in the fall, Leach said the school’s backup plan is to keep the pre-k program running as normal and provide care to 10 students in grades five to 12 who have no other options.
“When we closed last time, most of the parents were able to work from home or were not working at that time, but this time it’s different,” Leach said. “Businesses are open and parents are back and not doing as much virtually. We need to think of something that would help them and this is what we came up with and are licensed to do.”
Other parents may be considering homeschooling as an alternative to public school. Stephanie Woolfolk, a mother of two who homeschools her sons, recommends anyone considering homeschooling to find a support network.
“Once they [parents] get into homeschooling, they’ll find that most homeschooling families are very supportive in helping them come up with ideas or just listening to you and giving you encouragement,” Woolfolk said. “If I were new to this I would definitely want a network.”
Although homeschooling is not without its challenges, it can offer flexibility. For many parents, however, homeschooling and private school are not realistic options.
Lee Kelly considered waiting another year to enroll his son, who will turn five next month, in kindergarten.
“Had I known [about the school schedule] a month ago, I could have gotten him into [a private] preschool for five days a week, which is going to be better than two days in kindergarten at the public schools,” Kelly said.
His concerns include the cost of having someone to watch his son while he’s at work and the quality of his son’s education.
“It’s going to cost me just as much for those three days for a babysitter or some kind of part-time care,” said Kelly, comparing it to the cost of full-time preschool.
Kelly is trying to make the public school schedule work by coordinating with his job at North Anna Power Station, now that he knows his son will attend school in person on Tuesdays and Fridays.
“I’m off work on Mondays … so that leaves me Wednesday and Thursday to find somebody to keep him,” he said. Kelly is hoping to find a place for his son on Thursdays at Ms. Elizabeth’s Day Care, where his son has been going for two years, but he’s not sure about Wednesdays yet.
Another challenge for parents is before- and after-school care. The Louisa County Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism is only offering care to students on the days they have in-person instruction.
Thomas said the new school schedule has put additional stress on parents, especially those with younger children.
“It’s for younger children’s parents that I feel more concerned,” Thomas said. “Older ones can stay home alone, but the younger ones cannot.”
Thomas said she’s trying to help parents as much as she can but is restricted by mandates around social distancing.
“We’re only allowed to have 12 people in a classroom,” she said. “My infant room can hold that many, but I can’t put 12 children in that room because I need to have three staff members.”
In response to some of these challenges, the Louisa community, including churches and individuals, is stepping up to address the issue of child care.
Louisa Baptist Church will offer a day camp for children in grades two to five on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We have been trying to keep a pulse on how the needs are transitioning in our community, and we’ve been trying to very quickly adapt to meet those needs,” said Rev. Richard Sandberg, senior pastor of Louisa Baptist Church. “It seems like every stage of this disaster has presented new challenges.”
He said the day camp will have many precautions in place to ensure the safety and health of children and volunteers. For example, everyone will have their temperature taken in the morning, class sizes will be limited for social distancing purposes, and all volunteers will go through a background check.
The church will partner with the public schools to make sure they’re using the right cleaning supplies, and provide meals for the students. Sandberg said the day camp will balance study time and extracurricular activities, including religious ones, to break up the day.
“There’s going to be lots of time when the focus is just on school work that has been given by the school, but in the middle of that, we might have Bible story time with the kids, and we may have some religious themes to the crafts or things like that,” Sandberg said.
Individuals in the community are also stepping up. Rachmel, who is a tutor and mental health professional, decided to turn empty rooms in his family’s home into a “supportive academic environment” for about eight students in grades four and higher, charging $30 a day per child.
“We’ve got some strong internet access and a place for kids to sit and do their distant learning, take breaks and play,” Rachmel said.
Like other school and day camp operators, he is taking a number of safety precautions, including choosing hardwood floors over carpet to make it easier to clean; making sure rooms are well-ventilated; cleaning rooms to the schools’ standards; checking students’ temperatures daily; and wearing masks.
“Whatever is recommended by the state or CDC, whatever the best practices are, I’ll do my best to follow that sort of thing,” Rachmel said.
The old saying “it takes a village to raise a child” has never rung more true as the community steps in to fill in the gaps. However, there remain more children, especially younger children, than options for child care at the moment, with churches, individuals and other programs limited by social distancing measures.
“It really is going to be a community effort to come together and provide a place for these kids to be able to continue to learn in a safe way and have that place that they can go [to], while their parents continue to try to do everything they can to provide for their families,” Sandberg said.