Pizza lunches and iPads: A single mom speaks to her son about returning to school

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Outbreak Wisconsin chronicles people’s journeys through the coronavirus crisis, exposes failing systems and explores solutions.

Listen to Jessica Barrera’s second audio diary, produced by Bram Sable-Smith for WPR

Jessica Barrera said her son Niko, who turns 11 this week, did well learning at home after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools nationwide this spring. 

“His teacher said he was top of the class with turning in assignments and doing the work,” said Barrera, 40, a single mother in Eau Claire. 

Courtesy of Jessica Barrera

Jessica Barrera is seen with her son Niko at their home in Eau Claire. She decided to enroll him in all-virtual schooling this year over concerns about coronavirus and because of his success with remote learning last spring.

Barrera was laid off from her job at an airport transport service in March and was initially denied unemployment benefits because she received federal disability assistance for a rare blood disorder. She has since returned to part-time work on weekends and will stand by as Niko returns to schooling this week. 

The Eau Claire Area School District offered students and parents a choice: full-time virtual education or a hybrid plan that includes two days of face-to-face instruction and three days of virtual learning each week. 

Niko’s remote learning success and concerns about the virus spreading helped Barrera decide to keep him home full time.

“Anyone that has kids knows that kids aren’t gonna just leave their masks on nicely,” Barrera said. “They’re gonna chew on them and probably lick their hands and try to touch other kids and act like it’s cooties.”

Barrera’s blood condition, polycythemia vera, worsens her risk for developing serious complications from COVID-19. That adds to her desire to limit Niko’s exposure to the virus, even though children appear less likely than adults to face serious health consequences.

Still, the decision to keep Niko isolated was not easy. He is on the autism spectrum and must now work on his social skills — through an individualized education plan — over a school-issued iPad.

But Niko has managed to stay in touch with friends this summer while playing Xbox, and he expects to keep doing so. Another perk of staying at home: He expects daily pizza lunches, a coveted but infrequent delicacy in school cafeterias.

“I can flex on everyone at lunch time,” Niko said. “‘Hey, check this out: I’ve got a pepperoni pizza.’”

Courtesy of Jessica Barrera

Read more stories about Jessica Barrera in our Outbreak Wisconsin and Lives on Hold series.

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