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Stateside Podcast: Two parents talk about COVID in schools

A mug and laptop sit on a desk. The laptop shows students during online school.
Ralston Smith
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Amid Michigan's recent COVID surge, some schools are going virtual to curb outbreaks.

With recent COVID increases in the state, parents are uncertain about the future and school districts are grasping for solutions, setting off a host of new problems for parents.

Back in September, Michigan Radio’s Erin Allen and Rachel Ishikawa spoke with two parents about masking in their childrens’ school districts.

Since then, a lot has changed in Michigan schools. Cases have been disproportionately high among youth ages 10-19, according to Michigan Radio’s Nisa Khan.

But even children under ten are getting infected.

“It was quite a shock to learn that he tested positive for COVID, despite our family trying to keep it out of our house,” said one of the parents, Caitlyn Perry Dial.

She has two sons, ages four and seven. It was her four-year-old, Theo, who tested positive, despite being one of the only children in his school wearing a mask. She lives in Brighton, a district that — like over half of Michigan’s school districts — doesn’t have a mask mandate.

Arlyssa Heard, on the other hand, has a teenage son in Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD). Judah Shelton is a 15-year-old sophomore, and his school is enforcing masking. But he, too, recently had a COVID scare.

When Judah came home with a notice saying he had a fever, Arlyssa immediately took him to the district’s drive-through testing center. And she was impressed by its efficiency. But despite a negative COVID test, her son was still out of school for six days: Not because of quarantine requirements, but because Arlyssa had to cut through layers of bureaucracy before getting Judah the green light to return to school.

“I wanted to follow the process,” Arlyssa said. So, instead of just showing up, she emailed administrators and teachers until finally the school counselor told her that Judah could return to class.

Judah’s COVID scare was a false alarm. But, like Caitlyn’s son Theo, other children across Michigan and the US haven’t been so lucky.

Over the course of the pandemic, over 6.6 million children have tested positive for COVID. Like countless other parents, Caitlyn scrambled to care for her sick child at home.

“He's used to being in preschool every day,” she said. “He needs constant attention and he needs someone to play with. So trying to do work during the day with him around has been a little difficult.”

The same day Caitlyn learned that her younger son was exposed to COVID, her older son’s school announced it would go virtual for two weeks, “because of the high number of cases that were spreading throughout his school,” Caitlyn said.

Caitlyn was glad that Elliott, her seven-year-old, had gotten his vaccine earlier in the month when her youngest became sick. But, her district doesn’t seem to be as concerned about the virus: it had recently relaxed quarantine requirements for students.

“I wish it were a little different,” Caitlyn said. “We're loosening restrictions rather than trying to implement any sort of measures to prevent the spread.”

But COVID restrictions — even the most thorough — don’t alleviate all issues parents face, especially those of children with conditions like ADHD.

“For him, days out of school with no real direction about homework is a recipe for academic disaster,” Arlyssa said. “He struggles already, so it was not helpful to him at all to be out those days, especially when he didn't need to.”

Caitlyn’s son, Elliott, also has ADHD. She bought a chromebook for him at the beginning of the pandemic and said that doing school from home was a struggle for him, as well.

“Being sent home for two weeks to do virtual learning was just a big blow for us. And it could have been completely avoided with any sort of mitigation in our district,” Caitlyn said.

As COVID case numbers have exploded over the past few days in Michigan, parents are bracing themselves for more online school days.

In the Detroit Public Schools Community District, schools will be virtual every Friday during the month of December, due to staff shortages and increased COVID cases. On Monday and Tuesday of next week, Ann Arbor Public Schools will be closed.

For some parents, these closures bring hope that COVID numbers will look better in the future. For the rest, more virtual school brings the burden of caring for a child while already struggling to keep up with demands at work and beyond.

“I'm hopeful that things will look better. But I'm also a bit of a realist, and the numbers don't look great,” said Caitlyn. “So I have a lot of mixed feelings.”

GUESTS:

Caitlyn Perry Dial lives in Brighton. Her son, Elliott, is seven and her son, Theo, is four.

Arlyssa Heard lives in Detroit. Her son, Judah Shelton, is 15.

Looking for more conversations from Stateside? Right this way.

If you like what you hear on the pod, consider supporting our work.

Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.

Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Claire Murashima is a production assistant for Stateside.
Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.