Families debate: In person or online?

Most families plan to attend in person, preliminary enrollment visits show. Families say social interaction is a priority.

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August 6, 2020 - 10:26 AM

eighth grader Katelyn, junior Ember and mom Tammy Womelsdorf fill out enrollment paperwork Wednesday afternoon. The girls will attend school in person. Photo by Vickie Moss

Lisa Womelsdorf struggled to decide whether to send her two boys to school or keep them home for online learning this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

She filled out all the paperwork for her younger son, Konner, at McKinley Elementary School Tuesday afternoon, except for one piece of paper. That document asked her to declare the family’s intentions, in-person or online.

Instead, she sat and debated.

Konner, who will be in kindergarten, has a chronic lung disease and asthma. His grandmother has cancer and cannot be exposed to any potential illnesses. Womelsdorf works from home, so someone would be able to stay home with Konner and his older brother, Kolten, a fourth-grader. 

On the other hand, Womelsdorf has to work and may not be able to devote enough time to helping them. She previously taught preschool, but doesn’t feel she’d be as effective as a kindergarten teacher. She doesn’t want her boys to fall behind and risk being held back at the end of the year.

Plus, her boys need social interaction with their peers. They’ve been playing only with each other for months now.

“They need the social aspect. That’s so important,” she said. “Konner was pretty excited when he walked into the building, so I think we’re leaning in that direction.”

Konner Womelsdorf walks along a balance beam as part of a kindergarten screening process, while teacher Stephanie Defebaugh watches. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Womelsdorf and other families across Allen County are enrolling in school this week. All three districts are asking parents to tell them what type of learning they intend for this fall, in-person or online.

There’s no wrong answer, local physician Dr. Brian Neely, with Allen County Regional Hospital’s Iola clinic, said. 

“Whatever you’re comfortable with is the way to go,” he said. “This is the first time any of us have had to deal with something like this, and no one knows how it’s going to go.

“If you’re not comfortable putting your kids back in school the way things are, I don’t fault anyone for that. And if you are comfortable putting your kids in school, that’s OK too.”

Neely supports asking students and staff to wear masks while at school. He believes children will adapt to the masks much more easily than adults. He’s seen that with the children who visit the clinic.

“Most of them do pretty well with it,” he said. 

By the end of the day, Womelsdorf and her husband made the decision to enroll their boys for in-person learning.

“Their mental health is just as important,” she said. “If at some point we feel as if they can’t handle it, we will pull them and switch to virtual.”

SOME PARENTS don’t have the option to keep children at home, because of work or other obligations.

Gefte and Geraldine Blanc plan to send their daughter, Gaelle, to McKinley for kindergarten this fall.

Both work full-time, so keeping Gaelle and her younger brother at home isn’t possible. They’re worried how they might adjust their schedules if there’s an outbreak that forces her back home.

Gaelle Blanc follows directions to draw shapes as part of a kindergarten screening at McKinley Elementary School.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

“Our schedules are pretty packed. We don’t have the time to set aside to homeschool or do the things homeschool parents would do,” Geraldine said. “Going to school now will set the foundation if we have to continue at home later.”

They’re also worried, though, how well Gaelle will do with the restrictions the school has put in place because of the coronavirus. 

Districts will ask students to wear masks, wash hands frequently, and take their temperature at the start of the day. They’ll be asked to maintain social distancing guidelines, staying away from others as much as possible and isolating when sick.

“She’s pretty young, so trying to get her to follow COVID-19’s best practices is going to be hard,” Geraldine said. “Wearing a mask all the time is going to be very uncomfortable. It’s going to take some getting used to.”

IOLA HIGH School teacher Amanda Belknap plans to keep her three children home for remote learning. One of her children has asthma. She also hopes to somehow teach from home.

“We also don’t feel comfortable having the kids around hundreds of kids each day,” Belknap said. “The buildings are old and have terrible ventilation, most kids won’t keep masks on all day, and we’ve been isolated since March.”

Her children are good students and responsible, Belknap said, so she is confident they will do well with online learning even if she must return to school.

AT IOLA High School Wednesday afternoon, several families who enrolled said they plan to attend in-person classes. All cited social interaction as their primary motivation.

Tammy Womelsdorf, with daughters Katelyn, an eighth grader, and Ember, a junior, will attend in-person classes for practical reasons: working parents and a shared computer.

“I just think the benefit of having a teacher in the room is better,” Tammy Womelsdorf said.

“You learn more,” Ember added.

Tiffany Young said her children both want to go back to school. One will be in kindergarten and the other in 10th grade. Her oldest struggled with not being able to see friends when school was canceled last spring.

Sophomore Brian Rojas said it’s easier to learn when he has a teacher to help guide him.

Sophomore Olivia Tremain is looking forward to seeing her friends again. She thinks she’s better at hands-on learning, and online learning last spring was very difficult.

Her mom, Sheila Tremain, is confident the district will keep students healthy.

Ally Ellis will be a junior and said she believes the socialization from in-person learning will be better for students’ mental health. She’s involved in several clubs, plays volleyball and runs track. So far, she expects those activities to continue. 

Ally was most worried by the unknowns. What if the school year gets canceled again? What if she can’t play sports?

“Everything is up in the air and that’s very hard,” she said. 

Her mom, Katie Ellis, who is also a second-grade teacher, said she doesn’t believe students should be forced to wear a mask and wonders how difficult it will be to enforce in her classroom. 

Asking young children to practice social distancing also will be difficult, she said. “I feel like we’re asking kids to do things they don’t naturally do.”

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