Yiming Zhang

Sometimes, when it’s time to gear up for another day of school, Vicki Parsons Grubaugh finds her 5-year-old daughter Sophie huddled beneath the dining room table. Often, Sophie is screaming so loudly that Vicki has to take her daughter out to the back porch until she calms down. In these moments, Sophie isn’t afraid of monsters, or the dark, or any of the typical terrors children hide from. She hides from school.

“The computer is so hard for her,” Vicki said of her daughter. “She’s screaming, ‘I hate school. I hate computer school.’ And that’s from a child who’s smart, and a traditional learner. And that’s heartbreaking. This isn’t working for her.”

Sophie is social, energetic and extroverted, Vicki told me over the phone, and she builds deep bonds with her teachers. Like many kindergarten-aged children, she loves being around other kids, so nowadays, as she isolates at home away from most of her peers, she reminisces to her parents about her preschool days. 

Sophie, enrolled at Worthington Hooker School, is one of around 1,500 kindergarten students in New Haven Public Schools. In August, the district voted to delay in-person learning for at least 10 weeks. As November approached, families prepared for a hopeful Nov. 9 opening. But after a series of contentious Board of Education meetings and a spike of COVID-19 cases in the city, the district announced on Oct. 29 that kids like Sophie would have to stick with “computer school” for the time being.

In the middle of a pandemic, school has been radically disrupted for all students. But for a kindergartener, Vicki said, the struggle is compounded.

“[One of] the most important things you learn in kindergarten [is] social-emotional development — laying that groundwork for a love of learning and for school,” she said. “That whole second piece is missing on the computer.”

Of course, these difficulties are magnified for families facing financial uncertainty. Director of Education Services at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services Dennis Wilson said at a New Haven Public Schools board meeting that many immigrant and refugee families are dealing with “the trauma of dislocation.” Wilson said that among the families his nonprofit serves, there is a middle school student who takes classes in a car due to the lack of quiet in his family’s apartment and there are older siblings who have to juggle school on top of caring for their siblings. Virtual school therefore falls particularly short for refugee and immigrant students who are learning English, he said.

“For many English language learners who thrive off their personal relationships with teachers and classmates, there is no replacement for in person learning,” Wilson said.

In New Haven, some families are facing an especially brutal experience handling virtual school. But even households like the Parsons Grubaughs with two active parents and job security are in a state of chaos.

“CHILD CARE IS INTERACTION”: PANDEMIC DAY CARE

Earlier this fall, the Parsons Grubaughs attempted a pandemic day care setup for their children — Sophie and 2-year-old Phillip. Vicki, a licensed clinical social worker, has been cramming her work into the early morning and late night in order to help Sophie with her remote learning during the day. Her husband Nate, a professor in the Yale School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, was at the forefront of developing the SalivaDirect COVID-19 test, while also juggling parental duties.

On a typical weekday in September, Nate Grubaugh would drive Sophie and Phillip to Creating Kids day care center, 2 miles from their home. He’d drop his son off to play in a room with fellow 2-year-olds and take his daughter to the director’s office, where he’d crack open her school-provided Chromebook and log into Google Classroom so she could begin her morning meeting and literacy section. Twice a week, Vicki would take his place around lunchtime and help Sophie do her math lesson. Sophie would spend the rest of her day in her old preschool classroom, learning with 4-year-olds who wouldn’t be headed to kindergarten for another year. 

In the evenings and on weekends, Vicki and Nate would work with Sophie to try to complete as much make-up work as they could — a side effect of Sophie spending afternoons with the preschoolers. Even so, Sophie was participating in just 50 percent of her live class sessions on a “good day.” The hustle, Vicki said, was stressful.

Nate and Vicki are parents and employees, but these roles no longer have a clear separation.

“I’m just never completely in work mode,” Vicki said. “And I’m never completely in home mode, because you’re just basically doing both all the time is what it feels like. And that’s exhausting.”

And the exhaustion, she noted, is present even in a family with two parents who have been “very involved” in their kids’ lives. In New Haven, over 50 percent of families are single-parent families, and 75 percent of single parents in Connecticut are working. In a normal year, education means child care for these single-parent families. But in a pandemic, this child care has evaporated for all working parents.

“We didn’t want Sophie doing pre-K all over again,” Vicki said. “We wanted her around kids her age. We wanted it to feel real for her.” Sophie eventually left the day care center around the beginning of October.

When the pandemic hit in March, Mayor Justin Elicker issued an order to close all child care centers serving over 12 kids. As of the first week of November, according to Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood, 68.2 percent of all licensed centers are open, a 4-point increase from the start of October.

Some day care centers, like the Yale New Haven Health Hospital Day Care Center, haven’t had a choice in staying open. As the center is located within a major medical center, it lies on the frontlines of the pandemic. “We are going to be open — we have to serve our staff at the hospital; it’s just what we have to do,” Center Director Lynn Wiener said. Throughout the pandemic, the center has adhered to standard COVID-19 precautions: mask usage, regular cleaning, an altered drop-off system.

Despite the precautions, Wiener said YNHH’s center has fostered an environment of meaningful interaction among the kids.

“As far as I’m concerned, child care is interaction,” she said. According to Wiener, the core purpose of the center simply could not be achieved without this physical relationship between child and caregiver.

There’s also an even deeper issue, Wiener said: For small children, facial expressions are a necessity. With all health care providers being mandated to wear masks, however, children can no longer experience this integral aspect of body language. “[For] an infant, [not being] able to see our smiles is an issue,” she said.

Rachel Katz and Helen Shwe Hadani, education reporters for Brookings, warned of the issue toward the beginning of the pandemic. “Children rely on their caregiver’s facial expressions and tone of voice to regulate their response toward people and new situations,” they wrote in an April 21 story. Paula Niedenthal, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has studied the different types of smiles. She found that without seeing the lower half of the face, it’s much harder for adults to even be able decode facial expressions, so when kids see adults in masks, it becomes tough for them to develop an awareness of these expressions and their meanings.

Still, at YNHH, they are determined to maintain as much of the pre-pandemic experience as possible. “Does it mean we’re not able to adjust?” Wiener said. “No, we can. We have to.”

But at the Creating Kids center in September, Sophie would sit alone with her parents, completing her math lesson. In these moments, day care for her was no longer about socialization, but about having a quiet room to focus on school. Both she and her parents felt the loss.

Then October came. She stopped attending day care and new challenges ensued.

THREE PEERS IN A POD

At the beginning of the month, the Parsons Grubaughs teamed up with two other kindergarten families to create a learning pod. Each family takes turns hosting the children throughout the week, with the hosting parents providing supervision and assistance as the kids go through their virtual day. The move was a good one, Vicki said, not only because they “literally couldn’t manage it” in their previous arrangement, but because Sophie craved companionship.

And yet the challenges continued. Sitting with two other peers in their pod, Sophie would get restless. “Why do I have to sit in the middle?” she’d ask. “I didn’t get to go.” “Why didn’t I get to go?” “I wanted to share!”

Sophie’s teacher is “doing as [well] as anybody could do,” Vicki said. “But in a classroom, [students are] given cues and looks and that nonverbal support and encouragement to help them learn how to be in a group and learn together. You can’t do that on the computer.”

Ilana Richman, the parent who suggested the learning pod, has felt a similar stress to that of Vicki.

Richman works full time at Yale New Haven Hospital as a physician practicing internal medicine. Normally, public school would mean free child care for her family — and with that, the ability to go to work. But with a kindergarten-age son enrolled in virtual school, Richman must now fulfill two roles: full-time physician and full-time teacher’s assistant.

“It’s so hard to toggle back and forth between ‘now we’re sitting down listening’ to ‘now we’re going to do this assignment’ to ‘now we’re taking a break,” Richman said. “I have to constantly reorient him.”

For the members of Richman’s pod, the day has a manageable format, she said: 15 minutes of interactive class session, some time away to complete work, and then a period of small group collaboration with the teacher.

Richman’s son has a relatively happy disposition, she noted, and she’s been surprised by how much he’s been able to make out of the virtual experience.

“He’s connected much more with his classmates online than I might have expected,” she said. “And he loves his teacher. And that’s a total testament to her talent and skill.”

But in contrast, many images of virtual learning for younger kids that have circled the media across the nation since most schools shut down last spring have been decidedly negative. In The Atlantic, author Emily Gould called remote learning “a bad joke” for her preschool-aged child. CNBC reported in September that parents across the country felt like they were “constantly failing” when it came to remote learning. The headlines continued: “The Sad Realities of Virtual Learning” in The Dispatch; “My 5-year-old Refused to Participate on Zoom” in Chalkbeat; “I Just Don’t Want My Kids to Give Up” in The Baltimore Sun.

Even with the best teacher possible, Richman isn’t satisfied with the quality of education. She emphasized that virtual kindergarten wasn’t suited to her child and his peers’ social needs.

“Nobody, if they were designing a way to hold kindergarten, would choose a remote format.” she said. “It’s just not well-suited to how kids that age interact with the world.”

“A ROLLERCOASTER OF WAITING”: THE CHAOS OF REOPENING

Over the summer, New Haven Federation of Teachers President Dave Cicarella said the district found that schools were, in fact, not ready to reopen based on safety standards. Back then, he said, he and others in the federation and board were appalled by a variety of sanitation and air quality issues across the district, and decided schools shouldn’t open until they fixed those problems. The Board of Education voted to conduct fully remote learning for the whole district for at least 10 weeks, making New Haven the only Connecticut school district to open without some element of in-person learning.

But New Haven was a unique case, Cicarella said.

“Our facilities department is incredibly understaffed and completely underfunded,” he said. “They don’t do routine things like change filters. Things break down, and they don’t fix them. We have these brand new buildings with HVAC systems that essentially don’t work. What the hell’s up there — is it mold?”

As Nov. 9 — the proposed opening date — loomed, officials were less and less confident in the district’s ability to safely host in-person learning.

In late October, the New Haven Board of Education met over Zoom to discuss the impending reopening. The mood at the meeting was frenzied and demonstrated stark division among the NHPS community about reopening. Some parents expressed excitement about the reopening, telling the board how much their kids were ready to return — a clear plea against the unspoken fear that this return wasn’t going to happen. Others pushed the board to reconsider the return to in-person learning, citing rising COVID-19 cases in New Haven.

Mayor Justin Elicker announced the halt of the in-person transition just 10 days before the scheduled hybrid start date, after the city recorded a rising rate of 13.9 positive cases per 100,000 residents. In the midst of the reopening chaos were families like Richman’s, unsure of when to expect a return and forced to rapidly react to the rippling effects of the board’s last-minute decisions.

“It’s always hard when reality deviates from expectations,” Richman said. “Parents were looking forward to stability. Kids were looking forward to going back to school. We’re having a serious uptick in cases, so I understand the decision. But it was hard to be on that rollercoaster of waiting, and tough to experience the last-minute plans change.” 

While parents may have been disappointed by the delay in reopening, New Haven Public Schools Advocates parent Sarah Miller told The New Haven Independent that it was “the right call.” Both Richman and Vicki Parsons Grubaugh acknowledged that the rise in New Haven cases was dangerous and a valid concern of the district.

But in November, the Parsons Grubaugh family was ready for an end to the table-hiding. That end never came, and when it didn’t, Vicki held it in — for days. How was she supposed to tell Sophie, a social girl for whom virtual kindergarten “wasn’t working?”

“I didn’t even tell Sophie that we were going back until that last board meeting, when I felt certain we were going to return,” she said. “And then when it didn’t happen, I couldn’t even tell Sophie for days. I was too heartbroken to tell her. I knew she’d be devastated. That feeling is horrible.”

FIRST GRADE WITHOUT HUGS: IMAGINING IN-PERSON EARLY EDUCATION

Virtual kindergarten has been a struggle for Sophie. But the question remains: Even if children in New Haven did go back to school, would the experience be productive?

Jennifer Wells-Jackson, who works in a district public school as a literacy coach, has a first grader in the district. She said that based on her experiences and what she knows about her child, in-person learning in the age of COVID-19 would be heartbreaking. Before New Haven announced its cancellation of the hybrid learning transition, she overheard one of her daughter’s lessons.

“Her teacher reminded the class, ‘Remember, we’re back soon, and remember that we won’t be hugging like we may have done before — you can talk to your friends, but you cannot touch your friends,’” Wells-Jackson said. “Children just want to be friends. Our kids are going to be kids, and it will be difficult to deal with that.”

At the late October Board of Education meeting, several preschool employees warned of the dangers of in-person education for young children. Minnie Evans, a paraprofessional at the Dr. Reginald Mayo Early Learning Center, told the board that “we need more help.” Preschool students, she said, are tough to keep from one another and tough to keep off the swing set. “It’s going to be hard to walk 10 little kids down the hallway.” she said. 

Jennifer Graves, who works in a district preschool, also spoke at the meeting, questioning the value of preschool when basic physical interactions are risky.

She noted that as they prepared to reopen on Nov. 9, her preschool was given a list of guidelines to follow: dress-up and puppets would be shelved; the cozy corner, meant to feature comforting objects, would lose its coziness; without exchange of physical objects, there would be “no more learning how to share.” The guidelines would end any conception of playing with friends or engaging in group learning activities, she told the board.

“This guidance strips away much of the integrity of developmentally appropriate practice in preschool,” Graves said. “It is unrealistic to keep our youngest learners engaged and happy when we do not have what we need to be effective teachers. It is truly disheartening that this is what a child’s very first school experience will be.”

But for most teachers in NHPS, the considerations of how to make in-person learning worth it are far off.

TIME RUNS LOW AND FRUSTRATION MOUNTS

The Hartford Courant reported a “critical shortage” of Connecticut child care in June. Even before the pandemic hit, the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood estimated a 50,000 child care slot shortage, but COVID-19 has been estimated to almost double this gap.

New Haven has tried to provide resources for learning, specifically to families who may have struggled to simultaneously take care of children and work. NHPS set up “learning hubs” in locations like Barnard Nature Center and Trowbridge Square, where children who had not been logging into online classes — 1,500 when the hubs were established — could come in and take their classes. But these hubs have been shut down due to an uptick in COVID cases, and the struggle for families continues.

“Why can’t we be better?” Richman asked. “It just makes me angry. We know K through five kids aren’t contributing to community spread.”

Richman’s last point has been debated frequently in conversations regarding child care and the pandemic, but just last month, Yale psychology professor Walter Gilliam was the lead author on a study published on the relationship between the virus and child care.

“The worry at the beginning of COVID-19 was that schools and child care programs may be ‘super-spreaders.’” Gilliam told the News. “We found that there was zero relationship between child care givers’ exposure to child care and whether they tested positive for COVID-19.”

He noted that the study does not suggest that the virus “can’t” be spread through child care, but that most child care programs have successfully “guarded the front door” and mitigated spread inside the facility.

But research on child care’s potential to spread the virus has been varied. A September study from the CDC reached a different conclusion — the study tracked three Utah child care facilities and found 12 children who not only tested positive but who spread the virus to their families.

For Richman, some of the frustration she feels as a parent comes from what she’s seen is possible as a physician. As the pandemic hit New Haven this year, Yale New Haven Health has boosted ICU capacity by 75 percent. In March, Yale repurposed spaces in Payne Whitney Gymnasium for COVID-19 patients who did not need to be hospitalized.

This level of action has impressed Richman. NHPS’s reopening efforts have not.

“In the spring, as a medical system, we put it all out on the field,” she said. “There were enormous changes made to be able to accommodate the influx of patients. There were societal sacrifices made — we had a huge response. It’s hard to see that all that effort was not parlayed into reopening schools. As a society, we just haven’t prioritized that.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in New Haven and beyond, considerations of the transmission risk in school-aged children is increasingly important. Although parents and children alike have struggled with the ramifications of remote learning, reopening New Haven Public Schools is not feasible for the foreseeable future.

Sophie looks forward to seeing her pod-mates every time — recess and breaks are a bonding experience for her, Vicki said. And she’s repeatedly stressed her love for her teacher. She’s also getting better at reading. 

But she still hates computer school. And for now, computer school is what she’s going to get.

 

OWEN TUCKER-SMITH
Owen Tucker-Smith covers the Mayor's office, City Hall and local politics. He is also an associate editor at the Yale Daily News Magazine. Originally from Williamstown, MA, he is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College majoring in statistics and data science.