BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service)–Despite receiving at least one call from a truancy officer, Treasure Houston said Monday she is “standing her ground,” refusing to send her three children, including one with chronic asthma, back to school in Boston. And she’s not alone.
Priyanka Rajoria made a similar choice for her second-grader, opting for home-schooling rather than sending him back to Quincy Public Schools. While she acknowledged evidence suggesting he might not get that sick from COVID-19, she’s worried about him bringing it home where she also has a 2-year-old and elderly parents to worry about.
And Nelly Medina said her 5-year-old son with asthma would have to go back to a poorly ventilated school in their Worcester neighborhood where there are more than 30 kids in a classroom and no distancing requirements. “I’ve had to choose between home-schooling my child and working a full-time schedule or sending my child into an essential deathtrap,” Medina said.
Parents from Malden and Roxbury to Worcester and Rehoboth have made the choice to home-school their children this fall rather than send them back into the classroom unvaccinated in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant. But many of them wish there was another option.
Houston, Rajoria, Medina and other parents took part Monday in a conference call organized by the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance to demand that Gov. Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeff Riley make remote learning an option for school districts and parents. Some of those parents also plan to show up on Tuesday at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s board meeting to share their stories.
“I strongly believe if I send my children to school. I’m sending them to their death. It’s a death sentence,” Houston said, accusing Baker of leaving parents like her “stranded” with his position that all learning this fall must be in-person.
Vatsady Sivongxay, executive director of MEJA, said she has sent two emails to Riley and parents have sent additional letters asking for a meeting to share their concerns. “Parents are really concerned about their students and their families and they’re going to continue to put pressure on Commissioner Riley,” Sivongxay said.
Remote learning was a staple of the 2020-2021 school year before COVID-19 vaccines were widely available and districts had to make safe learning options available to families. But as the state’s vaccination rate climbed, Riley made the decision in May that schools this fall would return to in-person instruction and that districts would no longer be able to offer remote learning “as a standard learning model.”
Baker earlier this month said his administration has no plans to return to remote or hybrid learning, fearing the damage to students from being kept out of school and away from their peers for another season. Instead, Baker has encouraged school staff and eligible students to get vaccinated at on-site school clinics organized by the state and he eventually adopted a mandatory mask policy in schools through at least Oct. 1.
“I think one thing we all learned last year was that remote learning for many, many kids here in the Commonwealth did not work, and there’s lots of evidence that in-person learning does. And for us going forward at this point in time our primary focus is going to be to do everything we can to keep kids in school,” Baker said when asked Monday at the State House about bringing back a remote learning option.
Baker highlighted all the ways the state was helping districts with testing to make sure schools could be a safe environment. “We had school open last spring and many parochial and private schools had school opened all year last year and did quite well, and I think it’s critically important that we do everything we can to focus on making sure that our kids this year have an in-person experience,” he said.
Fewer than 15 minors age 0 to 19 have died from COVID-19 in Massachusetts since August 2020, according to DPH data, including one child under the age of 5 in the last two weeks. In the state’s most recent COVID-19 report on Friday, public health officials reported 1,147 positive cases over the past two weeks among those between 0 and 4 years old, 1,591 among those between 5 and 9 years old, 1,146 cases among those between 10 and 14, and 1,688 cases among those between 15 and 19.
In a report covering three days of school between Sept. 13-15, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last week reported 1,230 cases of COVID-19 in students, or 0.13 percent of the roughly 920,000 kids back in school. Another 190 staff members tested positive. In its most recent Sept. 16 report, the Department of Public Health reported that 15 people from birth to age 19 had been hospitalized with COVID-19 over the previous two weeks, including seven children 11 and under and four children age 12 to 17. Pfizer said Monday morning that its COVID-19 vaccine was safe in children age 5 through 11, creating a path for vaccines potentially to be authorized this fall for younger, school-aged children.
“I might consider when the vaccine is available, but until then I’m home-schooling him,” Rajoria said.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday anticipates an update from Riley on the return to school, though a discussion of remote learning in not explicitly on the agenda. Riley, instead, is expected to review ways the state is supporting districts and families with no-cost COVID-19 testing, including diagnostic testing, screening or pooled testing and testing for “test and stay,” which districts can use as an alternative to requiring asymptomatic close contacts to quarantine.
The department has also made information available to districts about how to purchase air purifiers through the state’s contract, and DESE said remote learning opportunities continue to be available for students with documented medical need, including home and hospital tutoring. Additionally, DESE said seven districts applied and created single-district virtual schools this year to give students an option, including Attleboro, Brockton, Chelsea, Peabody, Pittsfield, Springfield and Westfield.
Rather than being a criticism of Riley’s decision in May to fully resume in-person learning, Courtney Feeley Karp said the new push for a remote learning option is a reaction to the Delta variant and she wishes the state would adjust its response to Delta the way families have. Karp, a Boston Public Schools parent, said most parents she talks to were excited about the prospect of allowing their children to return to school in fall, but their feelings changed as the summer wore on.
Joshua Sarinana, the father of a 7-year-old in Malden, had been “cautiously optimistic” about his son’s return to school this fall, and even sent him to camp this summer. At camp, as the Delta variant spread, Sarinana said several cases were detected and the decision was made to home school his son for now. “There was no contingency plan. Personally, I think that was rather shortsighted,” Sarinana said.