Parents Make Tough Choices as Schools Reopen in Coronavirus Hotspots: 'Very Stressed About It'

"I wish they waited to reopen. It's crazy," Molly Ball tells PEOPLE of sending her sons back to high school in Georgia

From left, Willam, Molly and Henry Ball . Photo: courtesy

Last Monday was the first day of high school for William and Henry Ball in suburban Atlanta.

But throughout the week at River Ridge High School in Woodstock, no one wore masks, says their worried mother Molly, echoing an incident in the nearby city of Dallas, where a photo of mask-less students standing shoulder-to-shoulder made national news.

By Thursday, 14-year-old Henry was coughing and had a sore throat, and was tested for COVID-19. Though he learned Monday the results were negative, the experience has left the family shaken.

"I wish they waited to reopen," Ball tells PEOPLE. "It's crazy."

As students begin a return to school, parents across the country have, like Ball, wrestled with the decision of in-person classes versus remote learning or homeschooling, in hot spots from Florida to California and states in the Northeast that were overwhelmed by the pandemic early on and are once again seeing an uptick in cases.

At North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia, where the photo went viral, nine people have reportedly tested positive for coronavirus, and the school has now gone all online.

PEOPLE spoke to five parents across the country about their decisions, as well as concerns and fears, as a new school year begins.

Ball, 46, sent her teen sons back to school last week amid doubts: "I am very stressed about it."

The night before classes for the year began for her two high schoolers was a tough one for Ball. "I was so anxious," she says. "Will they get permanent lung damage? Did I make the right decision? All three of us were so upset."

The school year started Monday, Aug. 3 for the schools in her Atlanta suburb, which is part of the Cherokee County district. Masks are required by staffers unable to social distance, and are "strongly encouraged and recommended" to students — and though the school has said it will provide masks, Ball's sons tell her that no students at River Ridge High School have been wearing them.

"My older son is freaking out and he doesn't feel the school is watching out for them. He said, 'We're all going to be dead' and what am I supposed to say?" says Ball. "This is worse than I imagined, times 10."

A spokeswoman for the Cherokee County School District tells PEOPLE that parents were given the choice between in-person learning at school, or online learning at home, and 23 percent of students opted for the latter.

More than 800 students and 42 teachers and staff are quarantined after dozens of people tested positive throughout the district, according to data provided by the spokeswoman, though no positive tests were recorded at River Ridge.

The risk of either of her sons contracting the virus at school — she is very relieved Henry's test was negative — doesn't outweigh, for now, the negative aspects of keeping them home again for remote learning, a time of social isolation for both.

"I think it's healthy for kids to go back to school," says Ball, who says her sons both excel academically, and get significantly more from in-person classes. "But I am very, very stressed about it."

When her sons return to school, both will wear masks, she says.

Parents were given the option of choosing all digital or all in-person classes, five days a week for the nine-week fall semester, says Ball, who is considering pulling both boys out of school completely and homeschooling them since she believes that option provides more support than if she chooses the school's virtual classes.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the state last week surpassed 200,000 cases and neared 4,000 deaths. New cases continue to be high, but have plateaued at this level, the paper reported.

"They know it is out of control and crazy," says Ball, co-owner of two smoke shops near Atlanta. "There's nothing mandatory, masks aren't mandatory. I wear a mask and you get the worst looks ever. I have never seen anything like this."

"I think all of this is crazy," she adds. "I feel like we are a political experiment. ... I wish they waited to open. I love our teachers and teachers are scared."

Laurie Bulus, 48, of Palm Coast, Florida, is keeping her teen daughters home for all-remote learning while she works: "It's a mess. Nothing is like the way it used to be."

Marissa Modiano, left, Laurie Bulus and Alyssa Modiano. courtesy

Laurie Bulus's two teenage daughters will be home from Indian Trails Middle School and Matanzas High School this year, but she does have some regrets.

On the one hand, when the schools in town begin on Aug. 24, Bulus is glad daughters Marissa Modiano, 17 and a senior, and Alyssa Modiano, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, chose an all-online course of study through Florida Virtual School, run by the state, rather than the other option of attending school fully in person.

Bulus' parents, both in their 70s, live nearby, and her father suffers from a heart condition that puts him at high risk if he becomes infected with the coronavirus. The couple spends significant time with the teens while Bulus works full time as an occupational therapist and professor at a local college, keeping the girls company and acting as drivers.

And then there's the issue of Bulus remaining healthy and not in quarantine should her daughters be exposed at school — Bulus is the sole breadwinner in the family and coming off of a multi-month, unpaid furlough that significantly hurt her finances. She can't afford to miss more work.

With Florida coronavirus cases surging since mid-June and surpassing 532,800 with 6,229 additional cases as of Sunday, according to the Miami Herald, Bulus worries about people in her community not wearing masks and their school-age children following suit.

"They say the numbers are rising here and one of the things that concerns me, there is an argument about people wearing masks and I am worried about my kids being around kids whose parents are refusing to wear masks," she says, also wondering how school officials will maintain social distancing. "I am on local Facebook groups and there are constant arguments about people who don't want to wear masks. It's a mess. Nothing is like the way it used to be."

"And the whole thing is working parents — if there was an issue where the kids got sick, it would impact me and my whole family."

A spokesperson for Flagler County Public Schools did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.

Still, she has regrets — the social isolation both daughters already feel from a lack of interaction with their peers, and that Marissa will miss out on the activities she loved, like performing in the school's steel drum band, and the traditions that go along with senior year, like prom.

"It won't be the senior year experience," says Bulus, "and she will miss out on a lot."

Chona D., 44, of San Diego, California, is staying home to help her high school-aged son who has autism: "There is no replicating school for special needs kids."

From left, Chona, Kai, Mark, Xavier and Sofia. courtesy

Chona's oldest son, Xavier, is a rising senior at a high school in San Diego, which saw a surge in cases through July. He also has autism and limited verbal skills. Still, Xavier has taken some classes with "neurotypical" students as well as special education classes, all with the support of an aide.

But Xavier, as well as the rest of the students in San Diego and in Los Angeles, only have an online option for the fall semester. "There is no replicating school for special needs kids," Chona says. "Many kids with special needs thrive with structure and the routine."

And as a member of the school's Best Buddies program, he's received help from classmates. "My son wants to learn," says Chona, also mom to two younger "typical" learning children. She asked that her last name not be used due to privacy concerns. "And he is most successful with the proper supports in action and not just on the IEP [Individualized Education Program, a written statement of the educational program designed to meet a child with a disability's individual needs]."

During the spring semester, when schools went remote due to the pandemic, there was a range of "support to little support" for Xavier, says Chona, adding: "There is a contrast to what supports, communication and resources were provided to typical school learners — we know because we are parents to two typical learners."

Xavier will be seeing his aide and case manager by Zoom, with Chona sitting right next to him. She will be an active advocate for more support for Xavier and hopes that insights gained during the last go-round of virtual schooling will not be forgotten.

"We learned quite a bit about what did work, what didn't work and we shared it with the team," she says. "The case manager, the aide he has, and I did a huddle."

"It’s complex to educate and include a child with special needs in school on a typical day, and the COVID-19 pandemic threw another tidal wave to families like ours," says Chona. "Many parents with a special needs learner felt a level of lost and forgotten, and some of the due educational goals were not supported more appropriately."

Chloe McGlover, 36, of Frisco, Texas, is organizing a learning "pod" for her son: "I want someone to be there for the kids."

Chloe McGlover and Jhonte. courtesy

After Chloe McGlover decided that it is safer for her 11-year-old son Jhonte to learn remotely for the first part of the upcoming school year rather than go in person and possibly be exposed to the coronavirus that has been spreading through Texas, she decided to find a way to enhance his education.

McGlover, a single mom who owns a massage therapy business, heard about "pandemic pods" — where online learning is enhanced by a small group of children learning together from either a teacher hired by the parents or the parents themselves.

So she found a teacher who can come to McGlover's apartment complex two mornings a week, charging $300 per month, a cost McGlover will split with the other parents.

The students will gather — yet be socially distanced and with masks — in a computer room of the building with their computers, with either the teacher or a parent there for assistance.

"Just because I couldn't afford a private tutor," she says, "that doesn't mean my son should fall behind and struggle."

The pod is also a way for Jhonte — who his mom says was bullied last year — to socialize and make new friends. "Now maybe I can start him off with some friends who can protect each other," she says. "Fifth grade is hard and my son is an only child and him having friends is important."

Mona Shah, 44, of Montclair, New Jersey, is is tentatively sending her son to in-person classes, and her daughter to a mix of in-person and remote classes: "I believe live education is critical."

From left, De Nguyen, Mona Shah, Serena Nguyen, and Kyle Nguyen. courtesy

Montclair, as well as much of northeast New Jersey, was ravaged by the coronavirus when it struck in March and continued through the spring.

With numbers are down significantly since then, Shah plans to send her two children to a variation of in-person classes.

Serena, 11, attends a local private school with hybrid classes — a mix of at-school and remote learning. For 7-year-old Kyle, a second grader at a public elementary school, Shah is leaning toward choosing four-day-a-week all in-person classes rather than all remote. But this may change by the time school starts the second week of September if numbers go up, she says.

Shah feels her children will gain significantly more from being at school, from developing socialization skills to the actual learning. Masks must be worn at all times at both schools, and Kyle has been practicing to make sure it covers his nose.

"There is something important about face-to-face," says Shah, a healthcare consultant. "I believe live education is critical; even my mom, who is a retired physician, has encouraged me to send the kids to school."

Serena, entering seventh grade at Montclair Kimberley Academy, has a very limited class size (in-person learning will be three times a week, with about seven students in a class). Meanwhile, Kyle's second grade classes at Bradford Elementary School have a class size of about 22, says Shah.

Spokespersons for Montclair Public Schools and Montclair Kimberley Academy did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's requests for comment.

While Bradford may offer some outdoor classroom options, Shah worries more about him going face-to-face, and about the large class size in an older building with poor ventilation.

"With my daughter I am very relaxed," she says. "With my son, I am going to make the decision the week before school starts. It's just the nature of the older buildings and larger class size."

She feels for the teachers. "I would not judge anyone who says, 'I don't want to come in and teach live this year,'" says Shah. "These teachers are in a very tough situation. Everyone is making such hard decisions."

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