Christy Riley’s decision to send her thirteen-year-old granddaughter back to school this fall presented a stark tradeoff: her own health versus a better education for her granddaughter.
When Riley and I first spoke over the summer, she worried about sending her granddaughter back to eighth grade. COVID-19 had forced schools to stay closed for months, and the Irving school district, where Riley’s granddaughter attends classes, had been oscillating among plans to reopen. Across the state, schools were wavering over the best ways to operate under pandemic conditions, with conflicting guidance from the Texas Education Agency. In Irving, the district delayed the first day of school, then moved to all remote learning for the first six-week grading period, then finally adopted a hybrid system, allowing families to choose between having children studying full-time at home or full-time in person.
Riley and her husband, who have had custody of their granddaughter for eleven years, faced a tough decision. Riley is 61 and has rheumatoid arthritis, two factors that put her in elevated risk categories for COVID-19. Her husband is 65. If their granddaughter somehow brought the virus from the classroom into their home, the consequences could be grave. But the family preferred in-person learning—could Riley put her or her husband’s health concerns before their granddaughter’s future?
The teen started the school year online but struggled with remote learning. Riley noticed that once her granddaughter realized she could check in for attendance and then complete assignments off-line, she started spending less and less time in web classes. “You do find them doing other things such as playing games, visiting with friends, napping,” Riley says. In a physical classroom, Riley believed, her granddaughter would be less distracted and could benefit from direct interaction with teachers.
So when the district allowed students to return, Riley enrolled her granddaughter for in-person learning. She says the district has been great about following safety protocols and that her granddaughter’s school has had only three positive cases since the resumption of classes. But the fear that community spread will catch up to them still lingers.
“With COVID on the rise, I still have qualms about her going back,” Riley says. “We have had a lot of acquaintances test positive lately. I feel like we have to live our lives, but we have to be careful about it. We are trying to only be around friends and close family, but some of those have tested positive lately. Just when you thought it was trying to get back to normal, here we are, on the fence of living our lives and staying sequestered.”
When grandmothers like Riley talk about “living our lives,” they aren’t referring to COVID fatigue—the desire to go to the movies, to enjoy a big family meal with chips and queso, to have fun again. They’re talking about the ability to provide for their grandchildren, and how the best educational options for their grandkids also increase these grandparents’ chances of contracting a life-threatening illness. What good are higher reading and math scores if COVID renders an elderly caretaker incapable of maintaining a stable home?
This is the impossible position Texas grandfamilies—those in which grandparents, other adult family members, or close family friends are raising children—find themselves in. According to a report from Generations United, a national organization that supports grandfamilies, 30 percent of kin caregivers lack an alternative caregiving plan should they die or become disabled. The study estimates that 4 percent of children in Texas—286,000 kids—live under the care of a grandparent or other non-nuclear family member. Many of those caretakers, including Riley and her husband, are among the likeliest to suffer serious complications from COVID-19, as a result of age and underlying conditions. The San Antonio–based group Texas Grandparents Raising Grandchildren says that 70 percent of the roughly seven hundred grandparents it serves throughout the state are over 60 years old and have health complications. Nationwide, the CDC reports that 80 percent of Americans who have died from COVID-19 have been older than 65.
Yet while older adults in Texas and across the United States have been cautioned to keep their distance from children because of the heightened risk of COVID-19, that distance isn’t an option for grandfamilies. “These kin caregivers are the first line of defense for children during the pandemic, having stepped in when parents cannot raise them for many reasons, including parents’ death from COVID-19,” says Ana Beltran, author of the Generations United report.
In Texas, the new school year has coincided with the most severe surge in coronavirus cases to date, leaving families like Riley’s feeling more vulnerable than ever. The state passed a grim milestone in November, as total cases grew to more than one million. Although specific data about COVID-19 in Texas schools has not always been reliable, the broader analysis indicates that schools have not played a large role in spreading the disease, particularly among elementary-age children. For families with immunocompromised adults at home, however, that indication does little to assuage their fears.
Rose works as a technology specialist for the Abilene Independent School District. (“Rose” is not her real name. She asked to be identified by pseudonym because is not an official spokesperson for the district.) Since March, much of her professional life has revolved around helping parents and caregivers—many of whom, she says, have been grandparents raising grandchildren—adjust to online learning. Among the grandparents, Rose says, learning to use platforms like Canvas and Zoom scared them nearly as much as the looming pandemic.
“I could hear it in their voices,” she recalls. “They are terrified. They want their grandkids to learn, but some of them can’t even turn on a computer.”
Rose may have been more comfortable with technology than those grandparents, but her own grandfamily was in the same boat when it came to coping with COVID-19. Rose, who is 61, and her husband, 68, have been raising their 17-year-old grandson since he was a toddler. In August, as the first day of his senior year in high school approached, the family had to decide: how much freedom could he have to attend classes and pursue a normal teenage social life without endangering his grandparents’ health?
“My husband has three strikes against him—he’s 68, has underlying health issues, and is Black,” Rose says, referring to the disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among Black Americans. Early during the pandemic, Rose and her husband set strict guidelines for their grandson. They began by allowing socially distant lunch gatherings with friends in outdoor parking lots, but maintaining such vigilance for months on end proved difficult. Rose worked from home in the spring but returned to her office in June. Her husband, a vehicle safety officer for the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, had been able to stay socially distanced at work, where he oversees a fleet of vehicles and occasionally does mechanic work. When school reopened, the couple understood they would be at greater risk.
“If it were up to my husband, our grandson would not go back to school,” Rose told me when we spoke over the summer. The couple considered holding him out of in-person classes, but Rose didn’t want him to miss essential senior year traditions and social experiences. Their grandson said unless they forbade it, he wanted to attend school in person and be with friends.
By November, the family’s world had been turned upside down. Both Rose and her husband contracted the virus and battled serious cases of COVID-19 this fall. All of Rose’s fears were realized when her husband fell gravely ill and spent a month in the hospital with two weeks in intensive care. He has since been released and continues recovering with in-home care. “It’s a true miracle he survived it,” she says. “The doctors can’t believe it either.”
Although Rose worried that her grandson’s return to classes would infect their family, she doesn’t think her grandson brought COVID-19 home from school. Contact tracing suggested the couple could have been exposed at community events unrelated to school, and their grandson never tested positive for the virus. She credits his high school with following safety protocols. “I just wonder who didn’t wear a mask,” Rose says, “and gave my husband coronavirus!”
The decision to allow their grandson to attend school in person may not have played a role in Rose and her husband coming down with COVID-19, but it likely did ensure that the teen received a better education. Through the first six weeks of the school year, the Abilene school district reported that nearly half of its remote learners had failed at least one class. The district says it will make changes to improve spring semester outcomes, but Abilene’s experience is not unique. High failure rates among remote students have been seen across Texas.
Despite the harrowing and increasingly common tales of COVID close calls and lost loved ones, many Texas grandparents refuse to let their own health concerns interfere with what they feel will be best for their grandchildren. When it comes to balancing the risk of infection against the benefits of in-person learning, the coronavirus gets wiped off the scales and the only concern is choosing the most effective school model.
Cheryl Saville, 62, and her husband, 65, are raising their 13-year-old twin granddaughters in North Texas, and Saville says they aren’t worried about their health. “When it’s my time to go, I’m going to go,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s COVID-19 or if it’s being hit by a Mack truck.”
Saville, like many grandparents, decided that her granddaughters could not go without the structure and personal attention from teachers that in-person education provides. When schools shifted to remote learning last spring, the twins’ online coursework lacked substance, Saville says, and on the cusp of high school, she believes the girls need to be held accountable for their work. Saville has raised her granddaughters since they were ten months old, and she laughs as she calls herself a pushover.
“I can barely get them to listen when I coach softball,” she says. “I don’t want to teach anything! They need teachers.” But along with the acknowledgement that attending school in person will provide her granddaughters with a more rigorous education, Saville also echoes a sentiment common among grandparents—the overwhelming desire to see their grandkids happy and to give them a “normal” childhood. Even during a pandemic, when the consequences could not be more grave, being grandma or grandpa comes first.
“I’m a grandmother,” Saville says. “I’m supposed to spoil them.”