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Jenny Hellman: Who should decide if children should be in online learning at TPS? The parents should

Jenny Hellman: Who should decide if children should be in online learning at TPS? The parents should

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On Tuesday, I read with dismay Superintendent Deborah Gist’s recommendation for Tulsa Public Schools to be taught entirely through distance learning for at least the first nine weeks of the fall semester.

I am still trying to wrap my head around how a decision that impacts so many facets of life for students and their families may be dictated from above if the Tulsa board of education approves this recommendation in the upcoming week. I believe the decision on what is best for a child should be left in the hands of parents.

As the parent of an incoming second-grader at Emerson Elementary, I have spent the summer in countless discussions with other parents from across TPS and local private schools, and the refrain repeated over and over has been, “How can we possibly continue with virtual learning as the only option?”

Initially, there were the logistical questions. It may have been possible this spring to sustain a virtual learning environment, when a full, government-mandated shutdown compelled employers to support or at least tolerate parents trying to juggle jobs while also facilitating at-home learning for their students.

This no longer exists, and employers are becoming frustrated with parents’ requests for flexible schedules to support child care needs. Jobs are at risk. Some families may be able to have one parent shift from the workforce to being home to support virtual learning, but what of single parent homes? Or homes that cannot afford to lose an income? Or the homes of frontline workers?

As time passed and it became clear distance learning may not be just a short-term solution, the questions started to arise surrounding the appropriateness of distance learning for a prolonged period of time, especially for elementary children. The research against extended screen time use is extensive. I found that attempting to have my son on a screen for learning for any length of time this spring was a disaster. Not only was he unable to focus, the effects on his overall temperament were stark.

And finally, as the months have continued to pass, the concerns about the social, emotional and mental health of children and their parents have grown. Relative isolation wears on every member of the family — from the youngest children not yet in school to the school-aged children being asked to learn apart from their peers and teachers to the parents being asked to teach their children while also juggling mounting household and career responsibilities.

As a working mom of three, these concerns weigh especially heavy. Historically, women have borne the brunt of this “second shift,” and throughout the pandemic I have seen this inequality magnified. The decision to mandate distance learning will have a particularly acute effect on the mothers in our community.

I do hear the concerns of teachers and staff in the schools, and as a district we should do all we can to protect these invaluable workers, just as we are protecting all frontline workers supporting our vibrant community everyday.

But I believe we are doing a disservice to the community if we limit the options of TPS children to only distance learning — either through the Tulsa Virtual Academy or through individual schools’ distance learning curriculum. I believe the parents of each child are the best equipped individuals to make the decision on the safest spot for their child for the school year.

Instead, because of my ZIP code, a decision that should consider both the physical safety of the child, but also the emotional, mental and social health of the child and the overall well-being of the family, may be dictated from above by the Tulsa Board of Education.

I urge the board to allow parents to decide for their own children what is best.

Jenny Hellman is a working mother of three, including one Emerson Elementary student. She lives in Tulsa.


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