The decisions parents must consider to put their children through school in a pandemic

Parents of Eau Claire struggle to find childcare and give their children an education within local school districts

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Timothy Spierings

Both Elissa Fromm and Kristine Knutson express distress over their few options for their children’s safety while at school.

With skippy audio over Zoom, Elissa Fromm sighed as she spoke about how COVID-19 has changed her life as a mother.

Going into the COVID-19 pandemic, working parents were forced to reevaluate not only their own daily lives, but also the lives of their children. Even as restrictions have been lifted to allow for more in-person interaction in schools, parents must make decisions that will affect both the health of their children and themselves.

“It does make me nervous. There are days that it’s like, ‘Oh, am I doing the right thing?’” Fromm said over a Zoom call.

Fromm is a sixth-grade teacher at Northstar Middle School. She also is a mother of four boys, only one of them  is vaccinated. The other three are too young to qualify for a vaccine at this time.

As a parent, you worry about the social aspect that COVID-19 takes away from your kids, Fromm said. Siblings need time away from each other to learn and grow.

Money is also something Fromm’s family considered. When the pandemic first started, Fromm and her husband found themselves in need of someone to watch their children as they continued to work during the day.

She said hiring someone went against the plan they had, that they had to decide that certain funds were now for childcare instead of previous plans.

For some parents, like Kristine Knutson, they are frustrated about decisions that are out of their control. The Altoona School District — where Knutson’s son attends first grade — does not have a mask mandate for its students, unlike the Eau Claire Area School District.

“I have a lot of negative feelings about their lack of a mask mandate,” Knutson said. “I think the science is pretty clear on the fact that wearing a mask helps protect the people around you.”

Knutson, an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said the ASD took the viewpoint that parents are the best able to decide whether their children should wear masks. She said she finds this unfair because her decision to mask her son is keeping those people’s children safe while they are not making the same decision to protect her son in the same way.

“I think that there’s been a lot of anger in our household over that decision but there wasn’t that much we can do about it,” Knutson said.

Knutson also had to consider special education for her son.

She said her husband and she considered moving their son to the ECASD since their son’s current school district  doesn’t have a virtual option for students or a mask mandate, however they decided against it because that would mean familiarizing her son with new special education teachers and occupational therapists.

Knutson and her husband, Pete Knutson, are both professors at UW-Eau Claire. When they needed to quarantine with their son this semester, they were able to create a plan that was flexible for them.

Parents also must consider what their employers will allow for time off if they or their children get sick.

Last year, teachers were able to teach from home in the ECASD, but this year teachers are expected to be back in their classrooms full time, Fromm said.

Fromm said the expectation is to write a plan for a substitute teacher, similar to how she would take sick time prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kristine Knutson already works on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while Pete Knutson works on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so they didn’t have to change their schedules by much to accommodate quarantining at home, Kristine Knutson said.

As  university professors, they have the option to shift their classes online. Kristine Knutson said she highly doubts that any of her students would complain if she needed to quarantine one day and hold classes remotely.

“I appreciate the flexibility in the system,” Kristine Knutson said. “Because it does allow me to continue serving the different groups that I have obligations to as things get confusing.”

“The idea of being home and doing school with sick kids and then still trying to do our jobs is super overwhelming,” Fromm said.

For Fromm, there are no “COVID-19 days.” She is allowed 10 sick days a year. However, if she were to need to quarantine with her children multiple times, those sick days would quickly disappear.

“That’s a scare for us because with our three younger sons, obviously they’re not vaccinated,” Fromm said. “If they get exposed, it could be multiple times that that happens.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children at or above the age of 12 years can receive a COVID-19 vaccine. There are ongoing trials for the Pfizer vaccine that could protect children aged from 5 to 12 years, however the research is still in the trial phase at this time.

In the ECASD, the current guidance for parents if their children test positive for COVID-19 is to isolate for at least 10 days from the onset of COVID-19 symptoms or 10 days after a positive test if the child is asymptomatic.

If a child is in close contact with a positive case and is not vaccinated, they are given two options: either they can undergo a 14-day quarantine from the last date of contact with the positive case — what the ECASD recommends — or they can quarantine for seven days as well as show proof of a negative antigen or PCR test from an approved testing facility.

Fromm said it would be hard for her family to figure out a plan if her or her children would have to isolate or quarantine. For their family, she said they don’t have anyone they could ask to quarantine with her children in this scenario.

“You can’t, obviously, bring anyone in if they have to (quarantine), you know,” Fromm said. “We don’t have grandma and grandpa close. Even if we had grandma and grandpa close, we wouldn’t have grandma and grandpa watch them when they were in quarantine.”