Montco parents worry two-week move to virtual learning will harm students’ mental health

Jennifer Singer with her children, protesting Montgomery County's two-week shutdown

"You can't learn to read through a computer," said Jennifer Singer. "You can't learn to write through a computer. It's just devastating to them." (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Montgomery County parents opposed to a two-week shutdown of in-person learning, which starts Monday, worry that a repeat of the spring is coming: a two-week closure will become an extended stint of virtual learning.

The Board of Health made the unanimous decision to order all schools go virtual mid-November citing a rise in coronavirus cases in the county. School districts across the county have adopted a mix of in-person and virtual learning since the start of the school year, with some schools resuming in-person classes up to five days a week.

Parents like Jennifer Singer have been sending their children to school for the full five days. Singer and around 50 other parents showed up at a rally outside the home of Montco Commissioners’ Chair Val Arkoosh to protest the mandate.

Singer lives in Montgomery Township and, like many parents at Arkoosh’s home, she’s had to balance running her business and doing virtual learning.

During the spring semester, learning in a virtual classroom was especially hard for her now second-grader, who is reading at a kindergarten level, per Singer.

“You can’t learn to read through a computer, you can’t learn to write through a computer,” said Singer. “It’s just devastating to them.”

Singer said her children’s school has had zero reported cases of the virus, which she argues is proof that mitigation efforts like mask-wearing are working. She’s concerned that her second-grader will only fall further behind during the two-week virtual learning period despite the fact she has additional resources to help her daughter, which she worries other parents might lack.

Parents like Melissa Gleba say the shutdown poses a child care problem for families like hers. Gleba is a dental assistant and she has to go to work.

“I can’t just say, ‘Hey, I have to take off for two weeks.’ It puts me in a very bad and sticky situation,” she said.

What’s more, should her biggest fear come to fruition and the county go entirely virtual, Gleba worries about her daughter, who is in kindergarten.

This spring, Gleba’s daughter Layla, who was in pre-K at the time, struggled with not seeing her friends. Gleba says Layla, who is already shy, became withdrawn and even moody. Layla lost interest in practicing her letters and numbers, according to her family.

For Jaret Gale, one of the protest organizers, the consequences of closing schools can mean life or death.

His daughter, he said, was a straight-A student until schools closed. Since then, she’s barely above passing.

Her mental health started to take a hit the longer schools stayed close. Gale said she tried to take her life.

“In her own words, the world was very bleak and she didn’t see any sort of future to it,” said Gale. “Walked into her room one night and I had to pick her up and bring her to the hospital.”

While his daughter is fine, he argues the shutdown is taking a real toll on students.

Some parents tried to block the school shutdowns through the courts, which a judge denied last week.

Gale said he and other parents will continue their “Breakfast with Val” protests in front of her home until schools reopen.

The information on how safe it is to reopen schools has been confusing and in some cases reported as being politically motivated.

Just last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly deleted guidance it published this summer that pushed for school reopenings.

Meanwhile, CDC Director Robert Redfield advised against school closures in the spring, citing homes, not schools, as the places where students come in contact with the virus.

Redfield’s comments about schools being the ‘safest places‘ for students have stuck with parents like Gale.

At a coronavirus briefing last week, Arkoosh said there are only five instances of spread within schools, with an additional two instances under investigation.

The upcoming closures are about reducing the overall community spread.

Though the virus is not originating in schools, it has affected staffing in one school district to the point where it had to close.

During her briefing, Arkoosh said 29% of the county’s coronavirus cases among school-age children reported this fall were from the past week alone, and 28% of the 138 total cases among staff also took place within the last week.

In weighing the concern about bringing the virus to teachers, parents like Gale argue social distancing and masks can keep staff safe, and those who are vulnerable to coronavirus complications can be accommodated.

“At the end of the day, we all have a job to do,” said Gale. “I don’t know any other profession where we can just say, ‘I’m just not going to show up because I don’t feel like it, I don’t feel safe.’ Everybody has to go perform their jobs and we want them to be safe, we want them to have personal protective equipment.”

This Wednesday, Arkoosh said the goal for the next several months is to “keep our positivity rate and incidence rate of new cases as low as possible to minimize risk for students, teachers, support staff and our bus drivers in our schools.”

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If you or someone you know is thinking of harming themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The crisis center provides free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, seven days a week to civilians and veterans. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text 741-741.

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