WEST CHESTER, PA — The public comment period in possibly every school board meeting in Pennsylvania includes statements from parents who want their children back in brick and mortar classrooms, receiving face-to-face instruction.
School administrators, including West Chester Area School District's superintendent, usually express agreement that they also want students back in classrooms full time, but that they are following health department guidance and must find ways to follow that guidance while continuing to educate students. Those same meetings also regularly include comments from parents who thank school administrators for handling the pandemic as well as they have, and who see remote or hybrid instruction as necessary for public health.
A group of parents in the West Chester Area School District organized on social media and began to advocate under the name WCASD Families for Brick and Mortar for an option of all-day, every day in-person instruction.
They say kids and parents alike are suffering from anxiety, and students aren't learning very well.
WCASD Families for Brick and Mortar is one of half a dozen parent groups that formed around the goal of getting their children back into every-day, full-time face-to-face instruction. The groups' key arguments are about the detrimental effects of remote learning on kids, including mental health issues and diminished learning in virtual instruction.
The group said it isn't looking to end virtual schooling, but instead is advocating for the option of all-day, five-day-a-week, in-school instruction. "We're all just looking for choice, not trying to take away the choice of those who want to have kids in remote or hybrid," said brick and mortar advocate Tricia Stevens of West Chester.
Members of the WCASD Families for Brick and Mortar began making their case for an in-school instruction option by creating a video showing kids who are not doing well in remote or hybrid instructional models.
Tricia Stevens and Stacey Womsley, both of West Chester, founded the group and created the video last fall. The documentary-style work shows kids falling out of desks, lying on the floor, and worse, crying in deep distress at the prospect of going on Zoom for class.
The half dozen brick and mortar parent groups in the Greater Philadelphia area include more than 900 members, Stevens said. "We asked group members to tell their stories," she explained.
The video makes a heartfelt case for the stress some children are experiencing in remote classrooms. Members sent their stories of kids having anxiety and needing therapy who never have before, students who'd never failed classes now failing several. "I can't learn this way. I hate it," one boy says through tears.
"It was absolutely very emotional. It showed the impact to families and children of not being in school," Stevens said. Stevens said the video was sent to public school and county officials.
Stevens explained the idea of a survey came out of knowing officials were asking about the scale of the impact.
The video showed people's stories, but the group wanted to quantify what the stories showed, "to get beyond it, find other impacts, like the impacts on parents," Steven said.
"We wanted to show why so many parents are feeling that they want their kids in school. Not to just show that there is a large number. So, we included questions about kids newly in therapy, and about suicide and other mental health questions."
Another problem, the group insists, is children who need "extra help" are not getting the help on Zoom. "Tech challenges make it worse, they're very frustrating to kids. Headaches and other issues are showing up, and parents believe it's due to too much screen time. A lot of kids are losing motivation to learn," Stevens said.
She cited the example of quiet kids who would wait around until after class to ask questions who are now, in virtual environments, not asking those questions at all.
Stevens, who has a background in marketing research, used Survey Planet for the survey. She said she consulted professional sources to help her form the survey questions.
The survey was posted not just among the parent groups but on community group pages across Chester County and four other Philadelphia area counties.
"We definitely tried to get a well-rounded group. Some groups, like the brick and mortar groups, definitely skew toward in-school, but another group skewed the other way," she said.
Stevens said the groups invited the school district and the county health department and the county to participate in framing the survey so that it could "provide insight that would make it more meaningful to them," but no officials chose to participate.
The Survey Results
The survey went out on Facebook and Twitter in late December, with 1,573 parents answering from 54 school districts. Seventy percent of respondents had children in hybrid learning models.
Half of the parents said their children's grades were worse than in the previous year. More than half said they feel their children are not really learning and are falling behind. And, 62 percent reported their children's mental health had worsened.
Half of the parents surveyed said they felt unprepared to help their children with school and more than half also said they are experiencing mental health concerns.
Stevens acknowledged that efforts to get a representative set of respondents to the survey were not fully successful. "I believe we did miss getting lower-income and diverse families." She said those communities are both underrepresented in the survey and disproportionately impacted by the issues the group is highlighting.
The vast majority of parents responding identified as white and a high percentage reported household incomes over $150,000.
The survey results can be viewed here.
Parents Tell Why They Want Brick and Mortar School
Jennifer McClure of West Chester is also a member of WCASD Families for Brick and Mortar. The West Chester mother of four boys said her kids are all in varied "depressive states" over being at home. Her youngest son is crying a lot, even though he's always loved school. He's in fifth grade and she said he feels the need for the structure of in-person school. "He has very high anxiety and he's developed an eating disorder," she told Patch.
The youngest wrote a note at Christmas to one of Santa's elves, she said, asking if Santa knew how much trouble he was having in school.
McClure said her hearing-impaired middle schooler is the only of her four children who's doing better. He works with a headset at home and seems to do better that way than he did in a classroom, she said.
Calling her boys a small "case study," McClure said, "Three of my four boys were failing at least three classes per kid. I have a part-time job, I'm working at home, helping in the evenings. It's a non-stop cycle of getting frustrated then giving up," she said.
"Why aren't we going back? Other places are." She said she formerly live in Texas and worked as a substitute teacher there. The boys don't understand why their friends there are in school but they are at home on Zoom.
"Kids aren't learning anything this year," McClure said.
Another West Chester mom said her kindergartener has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) going into the last school year and needed only 30 minutes of special instruction each week. Now, said Suzie Smith, he requires much more time in special instruction and other services.
"He's spiraled, his behavior has unraveled," Smith said. She said it is a challenge for her to help him cope and he's not getting the support he needs.
Her second-grader had a concussion and had related medical issues. Smith said that though her son's doctor asked for him to have four days of in-school instruction, the request was denied.
"Staring at an iPad is not good for him. He's starting to say he thinks he's stupid," she said.
Smith transferred her son to a Catholic school, where she said he attends class five days a week.
She said she was impressed at how the students are all in uniforms, even on Zoom and are not allowed to be eating or drinking while class is in session. "It's not as expensive as I expected," she added. Smith said both her children are in therapy now.
"I've been pretty low profile until it started impacting my kids," Smith said.
The group said it hopes the school district will be open to having a conversation about the brick and mortar option.
Stacey Whomsley of West Chester is the founder and administrator of the WCSAD Families for Brick and Morter Facebook group.
Whomsley also had a son with a concussion this year, and like Smith, she eventually placed her son in a private school because the screen time was a problem with his condition. "He was only doing school two days a week," she said.
Whomsley has thought about possible solutions for everyone. Recognizing the needs for social distancing, she wonders if there is a way to use empty desks when other parents opt to keep their children at home for school.
"Why don't they use those empty desks?" she asked. Whomsley said she's found the school district claims its hands are tied by the health department guidance, and the health department tells the group its guidance is only "guidance."
The brick and mortar group parents would like to see school districts consider all their options.
"We have more than done our part to flatten the curve. We need to stop leaving our children at the mercy of these weekly metrics," Whomsley said.
"There is a window of opportunity for child development. You're losing time you can never regain. That clock will run out. You are stealing time from these children that we can never give them," she added. She said she thinks not having kids in school is especially punishing to disadvantaged kids, whose parents are working more and may not be able to help with instruction.
School District Is Following Guidance, Making 'Best Use' Of Space
School districts are following state and local health department guidance as recommended based on COVID-19 metrics in their area. But there is leeway, even when the metrics put counties in the "substantial risk" category, as are most in Pennsylvania right now.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education Attestation Form allows districts to opt out of the state's recommendations and use "local discretion."
To date, 570 people have died in Chester County of COVID-19 and more than 22,000 have tested positive for the disease caused by the coronavirus. The Jan. 7 state Department of Health data for the county placed the positivity rate at 11 percent and the incidence rate at 270 per 100,000 residents, both metrics that place the county's school districts in the "substantial risk" category that would call for all remote learning, not even allowing for hybrid instruction.
West Chester Area School District Superintendent Dr. Jim Scanlon responded to questions raised by the brick and mortar parent groups.
"We are following the guidance of the Chester County Department of Health which recommends six feet of social distancing. Bucks County Department of Health recommends 3-6 feet of social distancing, so each county has different guidance. All school districts in Chester County are following the six feet of social distancing guidance," Scanlon said this week.
The superintendent added, "I am hopeful that with the availability of the vaccine this spring, the social distancing guidance will be changed to three feet. When that takes place, we will be able to consider bringing our students in five days per week."
"In the meantime, we are bringing in students based on need for four days, or five days per week since October. We are making every attempt to best use the space we have, while still following all the safety procedures, including six feet of social distancing, Scanlon said.
'Health Means More Than Physical'
Beth Ann Rosica, Ph.D. began her advocacy to keep public schools open already last April. The West Chester resident who works in human services and said she comes from a social justice perspective.
"I have the resources for my kids, to make sure they're OK," she said. "But I'm advocating for educationally disadvantaged kids who don't have those resources."
Rosica's doctorate is in education. She testified over the summer in a Pennsylvania Senate committee hearing on how public schools might be reopened safely. She said her focus is on why schools need to be open.
"We are only focused on physical health, not mental, emotional, spiritual health," she said.
"I have kids I know are alone 12-14 hours a day, they are helping their own siblings. Sometimes multiple siblings in a home are sharing a single device. I know one family where found kids were sharing one device," Rosica said.
With Philadelphia schools still functioning remotely, she said she is very concerned that "kids may never recover."
"If we want to talk about social justice, I really believe these decisions are criminal, these kids will never recover. One of the great predictors of whether a person goes to prison is if they get a high school diploma. What happens if they are dropping out of school?" Rosica asked.
Stevens also pointed out that many kids got mental health services and meals at schools. While districts made adjustments to deliver meals, mental health needs have been more challenging.
"There's anxiety. Kids are shutting down emotionally as they're in social isolation," Stevens said.
Rosica also expressed concern that mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse is diminished with children not being with teachers as much.
"This is a public health emergency we've never seen, it's a disaster. It's incomprehensible that we are still here a year later. I'm starting to get concerned that we are not going to be able to go back in fall," she added.
The women don't think hybrid learning is an adequate solution. Rosica acknowledged that state and local officials are trying to balance education concerns for students with public health concerns.
"But at what cost to students?" she asked. "Covid isn't ending soon. Dr. Fauci is saying normality may not return until late 2021, maybe into 2022. Kids are losing a whole academic year," Rosica said. She and others said they will continue to work for more options.