Amanda Hickerson had been agonizing over the decision for weeks. Should she and her husband keep their first- and third-graders at home for a virtual start to the school year? Or should they opt for a hybrid choice that would let the children attend classes in school two days a week?

The choice for Hickerson wasn’t just about her children’s education. As with many Americans facing decisions about school reopening plans, it was also about her career. The mental health therapist from Smithfield, Va., had to cut back on seeing patients this spring when the coronavirus closed school and her kids moved to online learning. Hickerson’s husband wasn’t able to work from home so that meant she had little time for video counseling of clients.

“As a counselor, I can’t afford to have those cute little YouTube moments where the kids come in and interrupt a meeting,” Hickerson, 41, said in an interview. “That violates the ethics of our profession, so it’s literally me locking myself in a room during a session.”

Last week, with just two minutes to go before the school district’s deadline, Hickerson chose the hybrid option. It meant she would have more time for counseling patients, but she still wasn’t certain it was the right choice.

“We are all in the same boat, and I think everyone’s doing the best they can. But this is all new, and trying to determine what’s best for you and your family, it’s really hard,” Hickerson said. “It’s also hard to know what the next turn is going to be and in terms of work, I can’t move forward. So, I’m feeling just stuck and very frustrated.”

That sense of frustration and uncertainty is shared by parents of school-age children across the country as schools reopen their doors – or their portals – for the beginning of classes.

A recent Washington Post-Schar School nationwide poll found 50% of working parents said it would be “harder” or “impossible” to do their job if their children’s schools only provide online instruction this fall, while 50% said it would have no effect.

Not surprisingly, working parents with younger children expected the greatest disruption, with 66% of those with a child entering kindergarten through second grade saying all-online schooling would make it more difficult or impossible for them to do their jobs, as did 60% of parents with a child in grades 3 to 5. That dropped to 40% among parents with children in middle school who do not have children in elementary school and to 26% among parents with children in high school.

Ashley Zeufeldt makes funny faces with her son Jarren Tucker, 3, as she stands with daughter Jaylynn Tucker, 6, for a portrait near her home in SeaTac, Wash., on Aug. 15. Photo for The Washington Post by photo by Lindsey Wasson

For working parents with both older and younger children, elder siblings appear to be taking some pressure off. The poll finds 55% of elementary school parents who also have children in middle or high school said it will be difficult or impossible to work if schools are entirely online. But that rises to 71% among parents with elementary school parents without older children at home.

For Ashley Zeufeldt, a single mother of a first-grader and a preschooler, the closing of schools in SeaTac, Wash., earlier this year came just as she took on a new job as the manager of an apartment complex where she puts in 40 to 50 hours a week. Working from home was not an option, so she relied on day care as well as the children’s father, who had been furloughed from his job.

School in her children’s district starts back in September, but it will be online only for the foreseeable future. The children’s father has returned to work, so the kids will go to day care during the week, Zeufeldt said. That presents its own problems.

“A day care can only do so much. They’re not certified to really educate kids, and it’s almost impossible to provide the attentiveness they need,” said Zeufeldt, 34. “I would have rather had my kids in a school with circle time and reading rather than just having to be on their iPad all day.”

Like many working parents who can’t work from home, Zeufeldt is looking for answers that don’t seem readily apparent.

“There has to be some kind of other resources out there for working parents and, really, for everyone, for us to be able to educate our kids other than just putting them in front of screens,” she said. “We know it’s not healthy. I don’t agree with the decisions being made about our children’s’ education. And I don’t understand how I’m supposed to do that remote learning. I’m going to have to look into getting a tutor to sit down and go over those things with my first-grader or otherwise she’s missing a lot.”

Zeufeldt said she would prefer being able to send her children to school for a few days a week for them to have in-person education and to interact with other kids.

When asked how they prefer schools open this fall, 48% of working parents said they prefer a mix of in-person and online instruction, while 35% preferred all-online instruction and 17% preferred all in-person classes.

The reopening of schools in Northfield, Ill., on Aug. 24 will mean a return to “some form of normal” for Andrew Chan and his wife, who have two young children, including a first-grader in the small school district.

As part of the phased-in reopening, students in the district will begin the year by attending school in the morning and going home for lunch and additional learning at home in the afternoon.

“Going to a partial day is great for the kids,” said Chan, 46, who works from home as an Internet consultant. “From a schedule and life perspective we are looking forward to it.”

The hybrid approach will still affect his workday, however.

“I will be doing drop-off and pickup at times where I typically have customer meetings, so I’ll have to work around those,” Chan said. “But most of our customer base is going through the same thing so they fully understand.”

But even though he’s looking forward to schools reopening, Chan said the coronavirus is not far from anyone’s mind. His wife is a physical therapist at a nearby hospital and has to change and clean when she comes home from work before greeting the family.

“Is there a concern around covid, for sure,” Chan said. “The kids are very well aware of hygiene and sanitation for themselves. We have the kids in masks whenever we go out. We think the schools are going to be doing what they can. It can’t be 100 percent. But the school district has been very good about it. Very transparent.”

Whatever concerns about impacts on their jobs, more than 7 in 10 working parents in The Washington Post-Schar School nationwide poll said they were concerned that returning to a full schedule of in-person classes will lead to their child or family getting sick, with similar shares concerned about the health of teachers and their families and broader spread of the coronavirus in their community.

Alanna Ramos is a medical assistant at the University of Kansas student health center, where she spends much of her day swabbing and screening patients for covid. Working from home isn’t an option for her, either. But with a son about to enter second grade in the public school district and a 4-year-old daughter about to start in a private preschool, she wishes there were better options.

Ramos, 30, had hoped her son could begin school in a hybrid approach, but as coronavirus cases spiked over the summer she knew that would probably not be an option. For now the first six weeks of school will be online only for him, while her daughter will be able to go half-days to her small private school in person.

Ramos’ husband works at night, so he’s able to watch the kids during the day and help with schoolwork, but she still worries about her son falling behind.

“Honestly, I am already stressing out about it,” Ramos said. “I have a lot of concerns and worries primarily about being able to accommodate my son and make sure he does well and that we can support him in school and completing his work from home and still being able to balance being able to work. I would just hate to make my son work outside of what would be normal hours just to be at grade level.”

Even with her concerns about school and the coronavirus, Ramos is trying to remain optimistic.

“I do have a lot of hope,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a hopeless situation. Despite what’s happening in the news and the profession I work in, I feel like in my particular community we all work together really well. The majority of people are wearing masks and being careful, and so I think the community that we live in cares and I love seeing that.”

The poll was conducted by Ipsos online for The Washington Post and George Mason University’s Schar School for policy and government July 24-31 among a random national sample of 1,185 U.S. parents with children in school, including 867 working parents. The margin of sampling error for the overall sample is plus or minus three percentage points and is 3.5 points among the sample of working parents.

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The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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