As Schools Reopen, Parents Have To Choose: Send Kids Back Or Keep Them Home?

Damani Porras, a middle school student in Compton Unified, has been learning online throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Joseph Porras)

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The long wait for schools to reopen is near its end for many families in L.A. County.

The COVID-19 case rate has dipped low enough for elementary schools to reopen, and many already have. Educators are getting vaccines. Governor Gavin Newsom recently struck a deal with the state legislature to provide incentive funds for districts offering in-person classes.

Until recently it's been mostly smaller, wealthier districts with lower COVID-19 case rates, including several districts in the South Bay, that have been able to reopen. Now, that's changing, too.

This week, the Compton Unified School District is bringing elementary students back to school for hybrid learning. By the end of March, the school districts of Pasadena, Glendale, Downey and Long Beach all plan to do the same.

Even the second-biggest school district in the nation, L.A. Unified, is targeting April for a hybrid reopening and is inching closer to a deal with its teachers' union.

For this semester at least, parents will be able to stay online only if they wish, based on guidance from the L.A. County Office of Education and Department of Public Health.

So after a year of restrictions and limitations, many families will soon have a big choice to make: Do they keep students online at home, or send them back to school in person?

Here's how some families in L.A. are tackling this question.

COMPTON: 'WE KNOW HOW BAD IT CAN GET'

On Monday, Compton Unified is reopening elementary schools for hybrid learning. So far, parents are divided — around half are ready to bring their children back on campus and the other half are more comfortable staying with distanced learning only.

The split is different at each school, but overall, it leans slightly towards online learning.

Joseph Porras is a father of a seventh grader in the district, Damani. Middle schoolers won't be allowed to go back on campus until L.A. County reaches the red-tier, but Porras is already considering his son's options.

"Everyday (Damani's) like 'I wanna go back to school. I wanna go back to school. When are we going to go back?'" Porras said.

Joseph Porras and his son, Damani. (Courtesy of Joseph Porras)

Porras said his family gathered around the dinner table and weighed the pros and cons.

The biggest pro? Damani's grades would probably get better in-person. The con? Coronavirus.

"I could probably say about 30 to 40 family members have already been sick. Just in my own family," Porras said. "I've caught it before, and I was one of the safest people."

In Compton, the total community case rate of the coronavirus is 16,499 cases per 100,000 people. That's nearly four times higher than the total case rates in Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and El Segundo, which all reopened schools in February.

Porras and his father had the virus in January, during the surge. They've recovered, except for some lingering headaches. But having already gone through it, Porras feels more comfortable now sending his son back to school.

"It's no disrespect to anybody else who's out there struggling with (coronavirus)... we know how bad it can get," Porras said. "So maybe there's some type of immunity that we do have if we do get sick again."

When the time comes for middle schoolers to go back in the classroom, Porras is ready for Damani to join his friends in person again.

REDONDO BEACH: 'ARE WE DEPRIVING THEM?'

Further south in Redondo Beach, the total coronavirus case rate is at one of the lowest levels in L.A. County. The school district there already opened elementary schools over a month ago.

Even so, Valerie Castro is keeping her twin daughters, second graders, at home.

"We have been fairly conservative with our COVID precautions. We rarely go out," Castro said. "Like, I remember at one point I went to Barnes and Noble and walked around for half an hour....and my husband was like, 'Oh my god that was so risky."

Castro worried about spreading the virus to her in-laws, who they see fairly regularly, with social distancing and mask protocols in place. Plus, she said, her daughters have already done pretty well in distance learning and have each other for company.

Most elementary students at Redondo Beach Unified are back on campus for hybrid learning. (Redondo Beach Unified School District)

"Now that cases seem to be going down and things seem to be getting better...there's no reason to change anything," Castro said. "There's no reason to take that additional risk because we're lucky enough to work from home."

In Redondo Beach Unified, most parents are sending their children back — nearly 80% of elementary school students are back in the classroom for hybrid learning. The older students are coming back at an even higher rate.

Castro feels like she's in the minority and at times, she questions her decision to keep her daughters home.

"Seeing other kids go to school, like I see other kids in the neighborhood being dropped off," Castro said, "I'm like, are we depriving them of that social interaction? But the risk seems greater than the reward, honestly."

As more parents begin calculating the risks and benefits for their own kids, Castro encourages them to do what feels right for their own families without worrying about other people's decisions.

Lilly Rauzon, an eigth grader in Torrance Unified, says it's been hard to balance distance learning with her home life. (Courtesy of Ryan Rauzon)

TORRANCE: 'WE (KIDS) ARE THE MAIN PRIORITY'

Aside from parents, superintendents and teachers' unions, there is another group of stakeholders who want their thoughts noted: students.

Reese Lieser, an eigth grader in Torrance Unified, said there's a lot that parents don't understand about distance learning.

"I always tell my parents, like, 'Have you ever been in online school during a global pandemic?' They don't understand how hard it is,'" Lieser said.

Balancing several class assignments with the expectations and distractions of working at home is challenging, she said, and makes her worry about not being prepared for high school next year.

Caleb Rauzon, Lilly's borther, is a sixth grader in Torrance Unified. (Courtesy of Ryan Rauzon)

Since L.A. County is still in the most restrictive "purple" tier, Torrance Unified has only reopened its elementary schools.

But as early as this week, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has predicted the county will start meeting the conditions to enter the less restrictive red tier, which would allow higher grades to resume on-campus learning.

It's looking likely that Lieser will finish at least part of eighth grade in person.

"I'm excited but also a little nervous. I was kinda thinking, oh yeah we're not going to go back, but it's starting to become closer and closer," Lieser said.

Generally though, she does want to go back to school. Her classmate, Lilly Rauzon, agrees.

I asked the two girls, how much say should students have in deciding when schools open? Lilly answered:

"100% of it. Since we're the kids that actually have to go back to school. I guess the teachers should have some of it, because they also have to go back, but, I don't want to say that we're the main priority... but we are the main priority."

At a minimum, Reese and Lilly just want parents, teachers and school districts to check in, and ask students what they want.

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