After a spring semester that ended with online learning, school districts across Colorado are still scrambling to formulate plans for the fall, and parents are simultaneously trying to decide what’s best for their children.

Denver Public Schools (DPS) announced recently that classes will begin online August 24, delaying the return to in-person learning to at least September 8. This comes after the district originally planned to offer full, in-person learning for some students and online learning for others wishing to stay home. The change was a result of new data and guidance from local health experts, according to a letter from district Superintendent Susana Cordova. DPS also sent a survey asking families if they prefer in-person or online schooling for the next year (families have until the beginning of the school year to decide).

Similarly, Douglas County School District (DCSD) and Cherry Creek School District (CCSD) plan to offer online and in-person classes this fall, and families in those districts are weighing the options.

In addition to hearing the school districts’ messaging, though,  parents are getting conflicting information on whether or not schools will actually be safe this year. The American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, recommends limiting interactions, stating that the lowest risk of spreading COVID-19 is with virtual-only classes; the highest-risk of spread is full-sized, in-person classes in which students are not spaced apart.

So what are parents supposed to do? Will in-person learning feel safe? Is heading back to the classroom or sticking with online programs the best option? We spoke with several parents, some of whom are principals or teachers, from various school districts about their plans for the semester ahead. Here’s what they had to say.

Do In-Person Benefits Outweigh the Risks? 

For CCSD teacher Jessica Price and her three children, the option for in-classroom learning was an easy choice. “Honestly, we genuinely miss going to school,” she says.

From March 13 through the end of the school year, the Price family was juggling remote learning, remote teaching, and working from home—something Price says was a challenge. Price’s kids (ages nine, 11, and 14), say they didn’t learn much with online learning and are eager to get back to school. “I am excited because I’ll get to see my friends again and my teachers,” nine-year-old Maycie says. “I’m nervous about doing lunch and how the desks are going to be organized.”

While going back to the classroom will be a nice change of pace, Price says there are some risks. “I’m definitely nervous and I 100 percent understand that there’s some risk factors, but I also think there’s risk factor in not going back to school full-time and not having kids in that social aspect,” Price says.

Is Homeschooling a Feasible Option? 

Some parents, like Laura Twinem, have opted to homeschool rather than send their student back to the classroom. Twinem says it wasn’t the virus that kept her from putting her son in traditional school but rather how the schools are going to be run. For example, if a student tests positive for COVID-19, the school will likely close for a few days for cleaning. That made it hard to have a consistent routine for Twinem and her son. “I just felt like [being in and out of the classroom] added too much stress and emphasis and it would take away from the learning,” she says. “Also, as a working parent, taking into consideration that if he gets pulled from school, I’m in a situation where I have to reevaluate who’s going to be watching him during the day.” Twinem, a house manager and private chef who owns her own company, also homeschooled her son during kindergarten and first grade.

Homeschooling also allows Twinem to work with her son in areas he struggles with and allows him to work ahead in subjects he excels at, she says. Her son will also attend in-person electives organized by Aurora Public Schools once a week with other students in the area.

To homeschool, Twinem had to send a letter of intent to her son’s school. According to the Colorado Department of Education, other requirements for homeschooling include having at least 172 days of instruction, having the student’s progress evaluated in various grade levels, and teaching the student reading, writing, speaking, math, history, civics, literature, science, and “regular courses of instruction in the constitution of the United States.”

How Important is “Normalcy?” 

Pierce Jacoway and his wife, Jen Murdock Jacoway, have decided to send their four-year-old to an at-home preschooler and are sending their eight-year-old third grader back to the classroom with DCSD this fall. Their decision for in-classroom learning stems partially from a desire for normalcy. “I think by going back, they have that sense of normalcy with their friends even though it may be a little bit different or look a little bit different,” Pierce says.

Jen says at-home learning last semester was a challenge because she had to balance her 10-hour work days with keeping her son on task. She says it was also a challenge to teach the youngest that his brother had to do schoolwork during the day rather than play.

When asked if they have any concerns, Pierce says districts aren’t immune from the social distancing guidelines and extra cleaning measures many businesses and offices have implemented. “I feel pretty comfortable that schools will do what’s right and clean and disinfect,” he says. Jen, the principal at DCSD’s Buffalo Ridge Elementary School, says she’s worried about face masks getting in the way of education. Learning is not easy for everyone, she says, and sometimes masks can make understanding someone harder.

“It’s going to be a learning curve for everyone. This is something that no one really has ever experienced. It’s new for everyone…have a little bit of grace with everyone,” Pierce says. “We’ll get through it, but we need everybody’s help and cooperation to facilitate that.”

Will Virtual Learning Be The Safest Route? 

With kindergarten comes a lot of unknowns. Will my child like school? Will they make friends? Do they have a good teacher? How does drop off work? Now, add a pandemic to the list of unknowns. Nicole Meyer’s oldest daughter will begin kindergarten through CCSD in the fall, but she will do her schooling at home.

“We just didn’t totally feel comfortable sending her,” Meyer says. “My mom [who’s a teacher] made a comment last week about preparing her will, and it hit me how serious this really is. With that, I couldn’t bring myself to send my daughter into school because I really don’t know how much of a risk we would be taking with her health, even with safety measures in place.”

Meyer also says she didn’t want to hinder her daughter’s expectations about in-person learning, knowing this school year will be anything but normal. These factors led Meyer and her husband to opt for online learning through CCSD, which will allow their daughter to virtually interact with other students and a teacher. “It’s scary out there and making a decision was harder than probably anything else we have had to do as parents so far,” Meyer says.

What Other Options Exist? 

Andrea Maxwell planned for her youngest child to attend in-person learning this fall at 27J Schools’ new elementary school in Brighton. When the district announced the school would no longer open this year due to low enrollment and funding shortfalls, Maxwell opted to homeschool her five-year-old daughter through K12, an online homeschooling program. Two of Maxwell’s children have been enrolled in K12 for the past year. “I like the individualized attention that they get,” she says. “And it’s more personalized to their learning skills not to just a lesson plan.” In addition to offering free online public schooling as well as private tuition-based courses, the program provides lesson plans for the parents, a computer if the student doesn’t have one, books and science equipment. Maxwell says rather than being the teacher, K12 allows her to act like a tutor and help as needed.