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Moms Describe Preparing For Another Pandemic School Year


One year ago, August 2020, I got on the phone with some other moms. We were all staring down the back-to-school season in the middle of a pandemic. Our kids were reporting to school in their pajamas in front of a laptop. Well, somehow we all managed to navigate an academic year like no other - same for teachers, who we heard from on the program yesterday. Today we are going to check back with a couple of those moms, share some thoughts as we gear up once again for a school year that is not looking normal. Dominique Spencer, you first. You have two kids. You run a child care center in Washington, D.C. What grade are your kids now going into?

DOMINIQUE SPENCER: My son is going into third grade, and my daughter is going into her 10th grade year.

KELLY: And, Rebecca Garcia in Las Vegas, you are president of the Nevada PTA, the parent teacher association. You have four kids. How old are yours now?

REBECCA GARCIA: So I have three that are still school age, and they are 14, 12 and 10 - so ninth, seventh and fifth grade. And we have actually been in school now for two weeks.

KELLY: Oh, so you're already back. All right. Well, I will say it's so good to hear both your voices again. I can't believe this is the third academic year that's going to be disrupted in some way by COVID. I never thought we would be gearing up for another year like this. How's it feeling for each of you, Rebecca?

GARCIA: You know, it is a challenging back to school year, but my kids are so excited to be back, even with having to change the protocols and wear a mask in our school district. They're wearing a mask every single day.

KELLY: So your kids are at school in person, correct?

GARCIA: They are at school in person. And it is the first time - when we started back August 9, it was the first time that all kids were really back on campus. There is a distance option for those of us who've chosen in person. That's where all of our kids are. So it's definitely not back to normal, but it is more like what it was. Like you said, this is the third year that's kind of disrupted.

KELLY: Dominique, how about you?

SPENCER: We sort of understand that this is our new normal. We know it's not ever going to be the same again, but we are excited. My children especially are excited to be able to get back into their buildings with friends on a consistent basis. And we just kind of recognize, like, things will be kind of always in flux, at least for the next few years. But we feel good that this feels like something familiar. But we know there's going to be a little bit different things happening.

KELLY: Is y'all's school - is it doing any kind of hybrid thing, or is it the same thing - everybody's back?

SPENCER: No. Everybody's back.

KELLY: And, Rebecca, I heard you say your kids are wearing masks. Dominique, how about in D.C. for your kids?

SPENCER: Yes. Both my daughter, who's in high school - they're still required to wear masks. And my son is in an elementary program where vaccines just aren't available. They're definitely wearing masks.

KELLY: And have these questions about masks, about vaccines, where it's possible when the kids are old enough - have those been controversial?

SPENCER: They have been highly controversial. There have been challenging moments in school board meetings. There have been protests held in front of district buildings. There's definitely not agreement universally from parents across the community. But I would say the vast majority of parents all really wanted to see in-person learning happen this year. And right now we're navigating the challenge that is the first couple of weeks of school. And we've already had a school closed and moved to virtual learning due to COVID outbreak. There's also now a lot of hesitancy from parents. So it is still a challenging time to wade through for sure.

KELLY: Dominique, what's the conversation at your school?

SPENCER: I think mask mandates are pretty much one of the main things that nobody argued about. Everybody wanted their children to be able to return safely and to wear masks. So there hasn't been a large protest. Even in my child care centers where we have 2-year-olds wearing masks, even those families have not pushed back on wearing masks, even when the city kind of lifted the mask mandates a little bit. And so there have been very, very, very little pushback on that. We feel wholeheartedly that that's what's keeping us safe.

KELLY: I remember last year when we talked, Dominique, you told me you all had pretty much dropped out of first grade. You were fighting like fighting so much with your son that you just thought, you know what? Like, this is not worth it. Let's go bake cookies instead.


KELLY: How did second grade go? Was it any better?

SPENCER: Second grade was a little bit better. We started the year strong and kind of knowing what to expect because we were able to finish first grade in the pandemic and learning as we went. So second grade, we started having a little bit more foundation under our feet right away. I said, OK, we're not going to do any arguing about homework. What you get done during the virtual day is what you get done. We're taking it day by day. We're going to go slow. And we're going to keep our connection because I was back at work, and he was sort of in a Boys and Girls Club hub. And so I've really had to kind of trust that he was OK and he was getting his work done. And that was enough. Of course, we did everyday learning at home. We cooked. We went outside and found rocks and talked about trees and look for cicadas. And so he was constantly learning. We just did not let school stress us out.

KELLY: That sounds so smart because we had plenty to stress us out without adding without adding to it. And, Rebecca, I'm remembering something you said last August. You used the word crisis. That's what this last school year felt like to you - not like remote learning, not like virtual learning but like crisis. How did your kids weather it? How are you all doing?

GARCIA: You know, I think my secondary sons managed it much better than my elementary aged daughter. Their familiarity with technology, their ability to connect with their teachers virtually was just a lot easier for them than it was for my elementary daughter, even though she literally got, like, the best teacher we could ever hope for. The distance portion from August to March felt way longer than however many months that was.


KELLY: Yeah, it sure did.

GARCIA: But we were extremely hard-hit compared to other areas of the country - our friends and neighbors' severe job loss, economic insecurity. And so I think my kids weathered it better than some others, but they definitely knew that that was happening with their friends.

KELLY: Dominique, sounds like that rings true to you.

SPENCER: Absolutely. It just was a struggle just learning the second-grade curriculum, plus a lot of the technology pieces and just being able to keep on top of it. And the loss of direct instruction was hard for him to manage. And so he felt like school had fallen apart, like falling away from him. It just took a long time to get it going. He didn't enjoy it. And so that was hard because, you know, one of the things I want most for my children is to enjoy learning.

KELLY: We have been speaking with Rebecca Garcia in Las Vegas and Dominique Spencer in Washington, D.C. It was great to speak to you both again. Best of luck with the school year.

GARCIA: Thank you so much.

SPENCER: Thanks for having us.

GARCIA: Thanks for having us as well.

SPENCER: Stay safe.

GARCIA: Happy school year to everyone across the country.

KELLY: Happy school year.

SPENCER: One day at a time.


KELLY: Amen.


Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Casey Morell (he/him) is an associate producer/director of All Things Considered.