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Parents of early learners prepare for first day of school in Philadelphia

A mother poses for a picture with two girls and a boy in front of a brick house. The family is leaning against the wall, near the door, which is white.
Maritza Guridy smiles with her son and two nieces, who will return to Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary in North Philadelphia this year for kindergarten and second grade.
Samaria Bailey

Following more than a year of disrupted learning, parents of early learners across the city say that preparing for back to school this year has meant a combination of ordinary and extraordinary tasks, from getting backpacks to taking on the role of pseudo public health official.

“Besides buying extra antibacterial products like sanitizer, wipes, and face masks, I have been having multiple talks about the social distancing and making sure they fully understand how important cleanliness and staying safe is,” said Joy DiCastelnuovo, mom of a second grader at F. Amadee Bregy Elementary School in South Philadelphia. “I don’t want them to take it lightly. We have two immunocompromised in our household so getting sick is a rough thing for us.”

As the Philadelphia school district prepares to welcome back about 125,000 students Tuesday, DiCastelnuovo and other parents said this year’s return to school feels normal, in many ways, save for the added worry of COVID.

But the stress of returning this fall is, in some ways, worse for the parents of younger students. Many early learners are unsure how to properly wear a mask and keep their distance from classmates, and all children under age 12 still are ineligible for the COVID vaccine.

“I’m making sure I tell mine, ‘Keep your mask on all day; if you have to sneeze, sneeze in your elbow, if you sneeze into your mask, ask for another mask.’ The younger kids sometimes, because they are not used to it, they end up opening their mouths so the moisture from their mouth wets their masks,” said Maritza Guridy, who has a son and two nieces she cares for at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

Katrina Houston had to enroll her second grade son in a new school after the family moved. She said she would have preferred to enroll him in an online school, but she can’t afford a laptop. Instead, he will attend a neighborhood school.

“When it comes to my son’s health, I will be his teacher. I prefer him to stay home but they are making all kids go back. I found two online schools, I just don’t have a laptop and they don’t provide one. My son has a [district] laptop but if I take him out, he has to turn the laptop back in,” said Houston. “I’m stuck in between a rock and a hard place.”

Houston said her focus now is on making sure her son is prepared academically.

Christal Turner has students in high school, middle school and second grade. She said while the eldest has been vaccinated, the younger ones have not. Her primary back-to-school preparations have included talks about mask wearing.

“We’ve been enforcing, ‘Make sure you put your mask on.’ He is a second grader, so sometimes it will fall below his nose. I have to remind him to keep pulling it up. It’s a continuation of me saying, once in a while, ‘Hey pull it up,’” Turner said.

Sheila Tepper, a parent of a second grader at Bregy Elementary School, said she and her family had COVID last Thanksgiving, and this year ‘s back-to-school preparations haven’t been that different except that she bought masks to match her children’s uniforms.

“We do have our talks - ‘Just because you’re going to have to wear masks, still keep distance but don’t hang around [people] like you used to,” Tepper explained. “I have three age groups - second, sixth, seventh - they all know it’s not going to be like it was before, but they are all excited to start a new year. They need to go back, they need to feel a part of their peers.”

Parents were mixed about whether students should return to in-person learning under the district’s current COVID safety plan. Some wanted all students to be tested regularly, while others wanted all of the adults in schools to be vaccinated.

“I prefer them to go, but I prefer them to go vaccinated,” said Turner, whose younger children aren’t old enough to get vaccinated. “[But] until that’s approved, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Guridy said all students should be tested weekly. The district has committed to testing only students who show symptoms and those who are participating in athletics and band and choir. Students can opt out if they provide proof of vaccination.

“I [would] feel safer sending my kids, knowing all the children are being tested weekly,” she said.

DiCastelnuovo expressed excitement, with a bit of hesitancy.

“I’m excited because my children love school, in person more so than virtual. I feel virtual took a lot of the joy of school from them,” she said. “I am also nervous. We don’t do well with germs. I’m just praying the students do all they can to keep everyone protected. I have faith in the school, but you know how can kids can be.”

Renee Brown, a parent and elementary staffer who co-hosts an education-centered podcast, said a lot of parents she’s heard from are uncertain about this school year.

“The general feedback is that a lot of parents are not knowing what to do, what to expect, they’re scared. If they haven’t met a good administrator, they don’t know which way to turn or how to be,” she said.

Brown said she recommends that parents talk to their children and prepare them for how different in-person school is from home.

“Your child has to be mentally ready to be okay. That’s one of the biggest things they need. They’ve been home for a year and a half and now they have to be ready to go back to school. They can’t get up and go to the bathroom when they want, get up and get a snack when they want. The school is more structured,” she said.

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