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'It's a lot of hard choices': Parents stressed, anxious about back-to-school decisions

Making a choice between remote and in-person learning isn't an easy one for many parents who struggle to determine which is best.

DENVER — Parents across Colorado have to deal with tough choices when it comes to the upcoming school year for their children.

Linnea Covington said she understands the feeling all too well. Her son, Gunnar, is about to start first grade at Rocky Mountain Prep Berkeley Elementary Charter School in the Denver Public School District (DPS).

The district said all of its classes will happen remotely until at least mid-October. That means Covington, like many other parents, will have to juggle helping her son with his online classes and taking care of her other child while completing her own work.

"The other thing is trying to balance your own mental health with everything else you’re trying to balance," Covington said. "I need to sleep. I need to take care of myself. When you’re doing extra work trying to maintain this small child and keep them healthy and safe, mentally, physically, emotionally – it’s exhausting."

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But perhaps Covington's toughest work is deciding the best and safest decisions for Gunnar when it comes to how he'll learn. She said the school district's decision to start the year remotely makes sense for her son's physical health, but she's now concerned about learning and developing properly without being around other kids.

"I’m worried he’s not going to get the social skills he needs to deal with other kids, other situations," Covington said.

Covington said she started using Zoom to make sure her son has some kind of interaction with his friends, Covington's sister and his grandparents.

"I even paid one of my friend’s teenage sons to sit on Zoom with him for an hour twice a week just to talk about Pokemon, or whatever, just to kind of get him into that," she said.

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Social relationships are critical in driving healthy development, especially for young children, according to Jennifer Stedron, the executive director of Early Milestones Colorado, which is a non-profit focused on child development. She said there's still uncertainty about how the pandemic will impact children's social development, but there's a lot to weigh in the trade-off between remote and in-person learning.

Stedron said there are ways parents help their kids socialize while learning remotely.

"Learning is not a 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. endeavor," Stedron said. "Learning is really continuous and that means anyone a child is with during the day is going to be a teacher and anywhere a child is can be a place of learning. It’s important to think about the rest of the child’s day and what could be provided for that child to make sure the learning continues."

She also advised parents to make times for their kids to play with siblings, other relatives or trusted neighbors in their "social bubble."

"Let children have fun," she said. "That’s part of learning and it’s certainly part of social-emotional development and good mental health."

Covington said her mind is already on when DPS schools will be allowed to return to in-person learning and if she'll let her son attend. She said that will be another "hard choice" to add to her list of anxiety.

"My husband is an essential worker, so he’s exposed," she said. "My younger son goes to daycare a few days a week so he’s partially exposed and I didn’t want to take their exposure and bring it to a bigger place. And I didn’t want my older son to take his exposure and bring it to those other places."

Stedron said her advice to parents like Covington is "trust your instincts and give yourself a little bit of grace."

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