How five families approach sending kids back to school


September 3, 2020

Deciding whether a child should attend school in person or continue remote learning this fall has been a very personal issue for many families in Wahkiakum County.

I was able to catch up with five such families. Three have decided to return to school in person, and two feel more comfortable keeping their children home for the time being.

Natalie Sutton’s family is excited to start school.

Their youngest, Thomas, will be starting classes for the first time as a kindergartener. HIs introduction to education, in the middle of a pandemic, will be a little different than his two sisters, Emily, who will be in second grade, and Chloe, who is starting fourth grade.

“I don’t know how long the masks will last during the day,” Sutton said. “Pulling it down? Will it slide down or end up on the back of their head? I don’t know. It will be interesting.”

Sutton is currently working part time as a janitor. She hoped to find a more steady job, but the hybrid schedule makes it a little harder to take one because she will need to be home three days a week.

“There is limited day care and child care,” she said. “Only one spot takes kids, and I don’t have family in the area.”

Sutton, her husband, and kids live on Beaver Creek Road, so the steady job isn’t really the only thing to take a hit with the new normal.

“Our internet service out where we are in the woods is so poor, even if we got a Chromebook from the school, we’ll still have three kids on Friday fighting over the internet to get their school work done,” she said. “That’s the downfall of doing any kind of school work from home, the fight for internet use, and then the times of the day when everybody is on the internet, it slows down, really slow.”

The Suttons tried to get CenturyLink, but were told that there were too many on their road with the service already. If some disconnected, they could get on. It hasn’t happened. As for Spectrum, there is more wait and see. But this time around, according to Sutton, they will only be added if someone else nearby elects to use the service.

“We’ve had a heck of a time,” she said.

While remote learning was okay this spring, the kids miss their friends.

“I’m just going to go with what the school has to offer, even though they won’t get to see their whole class, they’re still excited to see who they get to see,” Sutton said.

Meadow Meeder was on the fence for awhile, but ultimately, she decided that going back to school was the best thing for her and her first grader, River.

“I never wanted to be a teacher,” Meeder said. “March to June teaching kindergarten to my kid was rough. It gave me a whole new appreciation. These teachers are saints. I can’t believe they go back to work every single day.”

Actively choosing to avoid fear based thinking is what lead to her final decision.

“I feel good about it,” Meeder said. “I didn’t at first. I was incredibly nervous. But six cases? That’s pretty miraculous. I’m trying to appreciate that we are one of few districts in Washington that is going to have in-school learning. I look at that as a blessing for a lot of these kids who get to go back and have their friends, and social interaction, and be around the teachers.”

“It’s not an easy job that Brent Freeman’s got, but I feel like he’s doing a really good job of making sure he puts the kids first,” she said. “I’m included in the comment when I say there are poor parents in this town that really need help raising their kids and getting them educated. I feel like him fighting to open up the school was him fighting for those families.”

Meeder is also grateful that families in this district can choose how to move forward, whether it is to send their kids to school or to keep them at home and continue their education remotely.

“You can truly do what you feel is better for your family,” Meeder said. “I think it says a lot about how our district is run. This is a unique place, and I’m glad that we have the opportunity to try to move forward in a good way.”

River’s cohort is numbered at 16 right now, and according to Meeder, he was fortunate. All his buddies will be in class with him.

“I think they need this. I think it’s going to be good for them to have structure back,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to it, because my son loves school, and I would be bummed out if this turned into an opportunity for him to not like learning because he’s stuck with me.”

It won’t just be good for the kids, if you ask Meeder.

“Pretty much every single parent I know is close to losing their minds, whether it be job loss, or finances,” Meeder said. “A lot of things have changed for a lot of people. It’s kind of a catch 22, being able to work remotely from home, but to also have a six-year-old with you 24/7 and try to be a working, functioning parent without leaving your home, it’s a cruel joke in a way. A lot of us parents are figuring out how strong we are.”

“I’m not the only parent who feels incredibly guilty for the amount of screen time my child has had partaken in during this pandemic,” she said. “It’s going to be nice to know my kids day isn’t just filled with me trying to keep him occupied while I make money. As a single parent, that was the rock and a hard place for a minute. Yeah, your’e going to have watch Disney Plus for eight hours today and I’ll throw food at you a couple times but I have Zoom all day. A six year old doesn’t understand that I’m working, he just thinks I’m ignoring him.”

Regardless of how this turns out, Meeder figures that even if they have to shut down the school in a couple months for one reason or another, at least it will have been somewhat normalized for a little while, and the kids will have had that time to socialize and to learn.

“Who knows how this pandemic is affecting them developmentally,” she said.

Angie Velke and her husband decided to keep their two boys home this year. The youngest is in second grade and will be working remotely, while the older boy, who is starting his first year of middle school, will be homeschooled.

“I’ve been wanting to homeschool for awhile,” Velke said. “I’m hopeful that the school will be successful with the remotely learning, but I think it’s going to be a lot of give and take and I just don’t want to lose all of his education. He’s very bright and I don’t want him to get bored with school. I want to keep him involved.”

It’s really kind of an experiment, and the sixth grader is looking forward to it.

“He likes that he will be able to do what he wants when he wants, and that we’ll have more control over his learning,” Velke said.

She decided to stick with remote learning at WSD for her second grader because he’s a little more laid back than his older brother, and he has a shorter attention span.

With three family members in the more vulnerable population, she came to the conclusion it would be better for everybody if the kids stayed home.

“I have an elderly grandmother that I help care for,” Velke said. “I visit my parents and help them with things. They are both considered high risk. If one of my kids or I get it and not know? I have three of them at risk. Yes, people have lost loved ones, and it’s very sad, but to lose three all at once? I’m not saying it would happen, but I don’t think I could do that all at once.”

“I think every parent is going to make the best decision for their children and their families,” Velke said. “I am grateful that our school is giving the all remote option for those that don’t feel at this point, can put their kids into school full time or part time.”

The family lives on Beaver Creek, and like the Suttons, internet is an issue.

“We don’t have that good of internet, but we’re going to make it work,” Velke said. “I get so much download per month, so when we use it up, we use it up. But I don’t see the second grader online every day for three hours. I don’t think they can do that with a seven year old.”

“We’ll manage, and we’ll get through,” she said. “If we need to do something different we will.”

“This is going to be a strange year for everybody,” Velke said. “I think the kids are going to learn, but it’s not going to learn like a normal school year. They’ll need to pinpoint what elements they want to teach, not the whole array they normally would.”

Velke is also a little concerned that teaching students in the classroom, while meeting of students attending class remotely, will be difficult. But like everything else, she has adopted a kind of wait and see attitude.

“I’m hoping very much for a lot of success and that there are no complications from the pandemic,” Velke said. “Because of my situation, I can’t take any risk.”

If she has any concerns, it’s about grades.

“It’s a situation nobody was expecting, nobody was prepared for,” she said. “I think the schools need to be a little bit careful on their grading system this year. Some of the kids that are remote learning might not get as much done as those who are in school. But they might still do well on what they are doing. I don’t want the ones that decided to stay home to get worse grades, when the family is saying that it’s the situation that is causing it. “

Jenn and Sean Miller have two young kids, Elsa, who is going into second grade, and Teagan who will be starting fourth grade this year.

“They will be doing all remote learning,” Jenn said. “It seemed like a no brainer because of our schedules.”

Jenn works during the day, but Sean has a more flexible schedule and can work swing shift or graveyard, and can be home for the kids.

The Millers decided that it would be simpler to keep both kids at home on the same schedule than it would be to have one child traveling to school four days a week, while the other one only went twice.

“Having the kids on two separate schedules made it a little difficult,” Jenn said. “What do you do with one kid, while the other one is doing this? It made it a lot easier to know they are both at home together where someone can be there to help them through everything when they need to.”

Like every other family in the community, they’ve already had some practice.

Elsa took to remote learning easily this spring, but Teagan struggled a little, knowing he was home and there were other things he wanted to do beside school work.

But the disparate schedules weren’t the only reason the Millers are going to stay home. They have beloved family members who also act as caregivers, and fall into that vulnerable category.

“If they go back to school full time, that limits them being in contact with those family members,” Jenn said. “With them being our main source of childcare when we are at work, it turned into a no brainer. We wouldn’t have that extra help otherwise.”

“I know it’s hard for kids,” she said. “They don’t fully grasp or understand why. They get that there is some kind of sickness, but they don’t understand why. Why can’t I be around my friends? That makes it hard for them, not to be around friends and hang out and play. It makes it rough as parents, to fill in that gap. What do you do with your kids? You have to take them outdoors for some interaction, anything to keep them busy.”

“They don’t have that recess, that run around time with friends. If they are sitting at home all day in front of a computer. So you have to take them out, let them ride their bike, do outdoor stuff.”

Kim and Stacy Wynn, who are both nurses, live in Grays River now, but at one time they lived in Cathlamet. They have opted to continue their children’s education at Wahkiakum School District, though families on the Westend generally send their children to school in Naselle.

“They are going to go,” Kim Wynn said. “We’re following the guidance of the school. I was really impressed with the amount of interaction between Superintendent Brent Freeman and Chris Bischoff from Health and Human Services and that they are working with teachers and everybody to make sure they could make it as safe as possible for these guys going back.”

Her youngest, Marius, is in the fifth grade, and Marek is a freshman at the high school. The two will be in the same cohort, attending school in person on Mondays and Wednesdays, and studying remotely at home the other three days of the week. Fortunately for them, the Westend has much better internet service than the east side of the County.

Wynn decided to forgo busing. There was an option to pick up the bus in the Skamokawa area, but she is concerned that it would just introduce more opportunities for interaction than she is comfortable with. Mom and dad will be driving the boys to school.

“We do have higher risk family members,” she said. “My father will be 79. My husband had cancer previously, and a nephrectomy. With not having that one kidney, his immune system is a bit more fragile.”

As a family, the Wynns have agreed on a process for each school day.

“They all have their own germs, and we all share our family germs, but leaving the home is the easy part,” Wynn said. “Anything that is reusable, we’re making sure we are sanitizing them as they leave the house, so they aren’t bringing anything extra with them. And as much as I don’t like disposable things, we will be using more of them, and they won’t be bringing those things home.”

“Once they do get home, they have to go to the bathroom right by the door and wash their hands,” she continued. “They will change their clothes right away, and get cleaned up from their day at the school before they interact with the rest of the house, just for that extra level of protection for everybody.”

Fortunately, because of the Wynn’s shared profession, taking shoes off at the door, washing hands, and using hand sanitizer were already normal activities.

“The boys are looking forward to being back in school, Wynn said. “One of the biggest reasons for going back is because they want to. They are willing to put in the extra work of making sure things are clean, or washing their hands, and wearing a mask all day long. They want to go to school, they want to see their people.”

“I want my kids at the Wahkiakum schools because I know how hard they’ve worked to make sure that they are going to be safe. And it feels like a community, and I don’t want them to miss out on that,” Wynn said.


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