Launching into the first COVID fall semester

Panicky scenarios are the main fare of my brain’s nightly programming. As both a parent of elementary and college-aged students and a faculty member at the University of Akron, the screenwriter of my dreams has plenty of material with which to work.

My eldest son, Claude, is now at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service in College Station, Texas, where it is both literally and metaphorically scorching. Claude runs at 5 a.m. to beat the brutal south-Texas heat, while nearby Houston and Austin are COVID red zones.

My third son, Jules, developed chronic fatigue syndrome after a bout of mononucleosis two years ago. Blood work determined that both his sister, Lyra, and I also had the Epstein-Barr virus (the cause of mono) at the same time, but without symptoms.

For Jules, however, it triggered his chronic immunosuppression, which makes him more vulnerable to a deleterious case of COVID-19 should he contract it. And yet all summer, he giddily planned to move into his first apartment near Ohio State University, located in Franklin County, Ohio’s king of COVID-infested counties. It’s good that Jules likes his four roommates, because they are all taking most of their classes online.

Leif, a rising fifth grader, was set to have all-day, in-person classes. Then, on August 11, we learned he will be taught online yet again. One improvement is that, unlike in the spring, his class will have synchronous instruction.

But it is the lack of in-person instruction for first-grader Lyra that concerns me the most. We continue advocating for Lyra’s legal right, as a child with an individualized educational plan (IEP), to receive in-person instruction even when a school district primarily conducts remote learning, so long as it can be done safely. In a case decided last month by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the laws on this matter were unequivocally upheld.

While we believe we will find a workable solution with the Akron Public Schools without needing to petition the courts, we cannot continue to forestall Lyra’s instruction until we’ve collectively determined said solution.

Teaching pods may seem like a novel idea born of a novel virus. But they aren’t. Home-schoolers have used teaching pods for years with multiple families bringing their kids together so that different parents can teach subjects they have expertise in or together they hire professional instructors.

Recent articles describing teaching pods point out that they can exacerbate inequities inherent in America’s public schools. Parents of means can hire instructors, leaving children from poorer families behind. In working to help our daughter, we do not want to widen any educational gaps at her school.

Therefore, we are in the process of hiring a special interventionist who has worked with Lyra before and is eager to work with her and other students now. Together, we are reaching out to other Case Elementary families whose children on IEPs requiring in-person services are close in age to Lyra.

The risk of contracting COVID is not as great outdoors as it is indoors, particularly if other protocols, such as mask wearing and hand washing, are followed. Therefore, we have purchased a dining tent, the kind you might find at an outdoor wedding reception, and for the next several weeks hope to hold class in our yard.

As for teaching at UA, I worry about many of my students, particularly the at-risk freshman in my composition courses, for whom this year may be their one best opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives. If they lose this chance, will they ever have another?

Last spring, when classes suddenly went from in person to online, about one third of my students disappeared. I emailed them all, multiple times. Some apologized and said they’d start logging in for our virtual classes, but never did. Others never responded at all.

Who knows what the students who ghosted went home to? Did they have adequate internet service and a dedicated computer? Space to effectively study and write? Were they placed in charge of taking care of younger siblings, also home from school, while their parents worked essential jobs? Did they themselves become essential workers?

I remind myself that the anticipation of what next semester will bring causes me more anxiety than will the reality, once it shakes out. Whatever scenario we find ourselves in, when it arrives we can accordingly address the actual issues at hand.

That is, unless an actual issue becomes many of us contracting COVID-19 (I agreed, perhaps foolishly, to teach in person). That many members of the UA community may become ill, as has happened at many universities around the country where classes have already started, is the one potentiality I dread the most.

Please wish all students, faculty and staff the best of luck for this school year. We need it.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 23, 2020.

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