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OPINION – An alternative to school: What happened when we got some families together to try and figure something else out

FILE - This Jan. 7, 2015 file photo shows public school buses parked (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom. 

It started out great. 

We were all chatting, sprawled out and socially distanced under the shade of a big tree in a backyard in Cottonwood Heights.  We were watching the kids. 4 kids that should be going into kindergarten, 2 kids that should be going into 2nd grade. They were running and jumping and shooting plastic air rockets onto the roof of the garage (that someone was going to have to get later.)

“Lookit all those kiddos just hanging out,” says a Mom. “This is awesome.  I love it,” says a Dad.  “That’s all they want… that’s all they need.”

There were 3 other families there besides ours.  The proposal was that we’d schedule rotating play dates and learning sessions between the families’ homes 2 or 3 times a week.  A couple of the mothers have teaching backgrounds.  The idea being that the children get some curriculum and much-needed socialization… “[He] needs social cues, he needs to know what it looks like if someone is happy, or mad, or sad. Not behind a mask.”  Everyone agrees on THIS. 

Everyone also agrees that when the 6 get together, that they should play outside as much as possible.  “This is going to get a lot more difficult in the winter…”

There are discussions, probes really, of how each family is in being safe in public.  “Are you guys going to playgrounds?  We haven’t been to any,” says a Dad.  “Anytime we go there and we see kids playing there we’re like we’re not playing there today…” says another. 

Then scheduling issues.  Some parents can do mornings, some afternoons.  There is the problem of fitting enough kids in the car for a hike.  “How many cars do we need?”  “How many car seats can you put in yours?”

One family has a one-year-old and isn’t sure how much commitment they can give to a set routine… they’d like to play it by ear.  Most everyone is working from home, but some parents need more of a buffer. “I can’t have it be like a wild-child thing.”

What if someone gets sick?  Not with COVID necessarily, but saddled with a general cold or the crud that comes with fall.  “I don’t think anyone is going to feel comfortable getting together with THAT going on.”

The real sticking point, as if the others weren’t enough, is that not all the families are sure they WON’T go to school.  Mine, for one.  Although we’re comfortable enough with pushing kindergarten for a year (the boy is a bit on the young side anyway,) if there isn’t going to be a rock-solid alternative, he’ll probably go.  “He has to have something… some regular interaction,” I offer, glumly. 

Another family has a child that has some special learning needs.  They are definitely sending her, she’s missed too much already with school shutting down last March.  And because she’s going, her sister would have to be out of the group.  That would defeat the purpose.  The father is understanding, but part of the reason he’s here is that he thinks schools will shut down at some point, and wants options.

All the while, the kids are having a fantastic time.  The homeowner has been using the smart sprinkler system on his phone to light up random zones on the lawn, to the kids delight.  Wet, they are happily slipping all over the trampoline.  Then they are eating their weight in potato chips.  Then they are looking for bugs.  This has not gone unnoticed. 

The families who are thinking about school have a bit of a grace period.  Their school has already announced a delay… they’ll think they’ll be starting up a class in late September.  This gives the group a little leeway.  We all decide to give this a trial run:  two days a week, alternating houses, outside, no lesson plans yet.  “Let just see if we can find something that works.  At the very least they’ll have something to do for a couple weeks.”

Despite the blazing sun, there is a dark cloud hanging over the gathering.  I think it is much like the general malaise much of feel us when the day is done and we’re thinking, “What are we going to do tomorrow?”  The answer, too much of the time, is the same as it was the day before. 

One Dad puts this into words. “There’s just a lot of moving parts… I feel like no matter what happens at some point it’s just all going to fall apart.”  “You mean school?” says a Mom.  “No… what we’re trying to do, here.”

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