Cheryl Upvall spent the afternoon cleaning off her dining room table. She’s setting up a designated place for her children to work and learn, laying out pens and markers, baskets of folders — and earphones to tune in to meetings.

Like many school districts in Collin County, virtual classes in the McKinney school district start the second week of August, and parents have the option to continue online or send their children to school in-person several weeks later beginning in September. The delay for in-person classes gives school administrators and parents several weeks to monitor the numbers of COVID-19 cases and weigh the risks of sending children back into the classrooms in the middle of a global pandemic.

But for many parents, patience is running out with so many uncertainties about the fall. They are taking things into their own hands to make school and work plans, creating smaller education communities where they are asking neighbors and friends to share the job of monitoring their children’s remote learning so they can return to their jobs. Others are turning to gyms and dance studios to fill in the gaps for child care.

Others have voiced outrage over the current plans.

As Upvall set up her temporary home classroom, small groups of parents and students marched with signs outside McKinney school district’s headquarters demanding their children return physically to the classroom at the start of the school year instead of virtually as scheduled Aug. 13 until Sept 3, when those who wish may return in-person.

A similar small protest by parents occurred last week in front of the headquarters of the Plano school district, where the school year is scheduled to begin virtually Aug. 12 before opening the school buildings Sept. 9 for about half of the students whose parents chose to send them.

More changes were in the works last week affecting school districts across the state, sending school administrators scrambling.

To answer a question from the mayor of Stephenville about who has the ultimate authority to close schools, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote a letter that says local health authorities cannot “issue blanket orders” to close schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Following this guidance, on the same day, the Texas Education Agency then announced that the state won’t fund schools that remain closed under a local public health mandate, reversing what it told districts just a few weeks ago.

Dallas County has issued a public health order saying public and private school systems within the county boundaries may not re-open for on-campus, face-to-face instruction until after Sept. 7. Collin County Judge Hill has said he does not intend to order schools closed.

Like McKinney and Plano school districts, the Allen school district has also chosen to delay in-person learning with parents choosing whether to send their children to the classroom several weeks later. At-Home learning is scheduled to begin Aug. 12 in the Allen school district until Sept. 2 when students who have chosen in-person learning will return to campus.

Some smaller districts and private and religious schools have opted to start in-person classes for all students in August from the beginning of the school year. Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Dallas that are not in Dallas County can begin in-person instruction as early as Aug. 19.

Plans and dates may change as the cases of COVID-19 rise or fall. But in the meantime, parents say they can’t wait. They are making plans of their own.

Just as news about the fallout from Paxton’s letter began hitting the airwaves, Upvall was driving to one of several neighborhood schools where district officials were handing out 13,000 laptops to help students connect virtually.

She is planning to send her children back to the classroom as soon as the doors open. And she’s not alone. She is among the majority of parents in the McKinney school district who said in a survey that they would choose in-person instruction this fall.

“My kids miss their friends and they can’t wait to get back,” says Upvall, 42, who is also an educator who spent 20 years as a teacher and school administrator and teaches education at Texas Woman’s University.

Many of her teacher friends have the same sentiments.

“They know that face-to-face instruction is best for most students,” she says. “The perception is that teachers don’t want to go back or that they’re scared to death. In reality, most educators are chomping at the bit to get back in the classroom with their students because that’s where the best learning happens.”

But many teachers are still hesitant about putting their safety and that of their students at risk, says Ray McMurrey, a representative of the American Federation of Teachers North Texas Alliance that has grown in membership since March in the Frisco, Allen, Plano, Garland and Richardson school districts. 

They want to wait until health experts have a better handle on a virus that still is not well understood, he says.

“They love their students and they want to teach but the question is how safe is it to return to the classroom in the middle of a global pandemic?” McMurrey says. “Technology is changing a lot of things but it never takes the place of a teacher. Still, until we have better answers we have to look at safer alternatives.”

AFT, which represents 65,000 teachers in Texas, has seen increasing numbers of teachers leaving the classroom, McMurrey concedes, and retirement rates are also up as a side effect of the pandemic.

The organization is offering more training in online course delivery. “It was a rush job in the spring,” he says.

Finding ways to teach during a pandemic is a community effort that involves teachers, parents and students.

“Creativity and flexibility is the secret to getting through this,” McMurrey says.

While some teachers will be videotaping from their living rooms others will set up cameras in their classrooms. Some teachers in the spring even dropped off handouts on students’ doorsteps.

Parents, too, need to stay engaged with the education of their children. Many are turning to each other for help. Moms and dads are opening their homes to other families to create neighborhood “pods,” taking turns monitoring each others’ children as they complete lessons online. Trained teachers, some retired, are offering tutoring services for a fee in their specialty such as math or a foreign language. 

Parents are asking dance studios and martial arts gyms for help in piecing together virtual school days, paying $250 a week or more to help their children with classes. They’re looking for ways to give working parents and single parents a place to send their children so they can go to the office or get some work done at home.

“So many moms are stressed out and don’t want their children sitting at home in front of an electronic device all day,” says Lara Austin, who just a few weeks ago helped create the QuaranTEACH McKinney Facebook group, a project of teacher friend Stephanie Briles in Houston that connects families and educators. More than 400 members signed up as members in its first week.

Austin, who taught school in the Cypress-Fairbanks school district outside Houston for 7 years, now home schools her three children, a first-grader, third-grader and a 19-month-old. Numerous posts on the new group’s page talk about the stresses of working at home while managing children’s Zoom classes during the COVID-19 shutdowns.

“We’ve got to start thinking out of the box,” she says. “Most of the time kids listen better to someone different than their moms. The idea of creating a safe learning village where we can work together makes sense.”

Having a community of parents also helps support each other emotionally, especially when there are so many unknowns.

“Definite frustration and a lot of worry” about school is being seen in posts on PlanoMoms.com, an information resource that has 15,000 members on its Facebook page, Plano Moms Talk, says coordinator Michele Townes of Plano.

Parents want to know what exactly schools will be doing to keep their children safe. What are the protocols for masks and social distancing? What happens when a student or a teacher gets sick?

“I don’t know if anyone has all the answers yet,” she says. “The unknown scares a lot of people, but for others it’s not a problem. For those, the rewards outweighs the risks.”

Townes, 36, and her husband, who can both work from home, decided to keep their two boys, 8 and 6, at home until they see what the virus does and how their friends do in a changed classroom.

She bought new desks for her kids and a large dry-erase board. They are set for virtual learning for the fall semester.

In McKinney, Upvall will teach university classes remotely from her home where she will also care for her 3-year-old son, Jack. She fears that sending him to pre-school with masked teachers would not be beneficial to someone his age who needs to see the movement of lips as he learns to talk.

Her two older children will be back in the classroom as soon as they can. She emphasizes that every student is different. Nathan, 12, who completed band auditions online, did great with remote classes. Her 10-year-old daughter, Ashlynn, who has special needs, is usually done with the computer after 30 minutes. She especially needs face-to-face interaction with teachers and other students, Upvall says.

If masks are required when they go back she says she will send them with masks but she doesn’t know how teachers are going to enforce the wearing of face coverings.

“I suspect it will be hard to keep them on all day but I’m really not worried too much about it,” she says. “We’ll manage.”

Upvall points out that her husband is a police officer. “So he brings germs home everyday,”

But she is extra careful about being around her mother who is 73 years old and receives chemotherapy.

“I understand why some would not want to go back yet. But a lot of it depends on how you approach it,” she says. “I believe it’s very important to be face-to-face with a teacher in the classroom.”

Upvall points out that her TWU students have not had any trouble getting teaching jobs even during the pandemic. And she considers lessons learned during this time about digital education will be taken into the future.

“Education is changing, it always does, for the better,” she says. “People have overcome a lot over the years and teachers have always found a way to make things work. We change and we adapt and we approach things creatively. That’s just what we do.”

Annette Nevins

Annette Bernhard Nevins is a Plano-based award-winning journalist who specializes in breaking news and features. She has held staff positions at several Texas newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News,...