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With COVID-19 infection rates below 1% in most Massachusetts towns, many parents wonder why schools can’t fully reopen

A group of Winchester parents rallied on the Town Common last month, calling for the full return of students to classrooms.
A group of Winchester parents rallied on the Town Common last month, calling for the full return of students to classrooms.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

All summer long, Jennifer Infurna, a Winchester mother of incoming second- and third-graders, carefully watched COVID-19 infection rates in her town hover well below the state average. Just last week, state data showed the 14-day infection rate was only one-tenth of 1 percent.

For Infurna, the data indicated it should be OK for full-time schooling, a welcome relief after a chaotic spring in which she often had to set aside her job to step in as her children’s teacher.

But Infurna and other like-minded parents in this bedroom community north of Boston found themselves waging a losing battle to get schools to fully reopen, as the local teachers union pushed for a remote start in the fall. Added to the mix were other parents who supported a blended approach or only remote. The fight turned nasty at times. Emotions boiled over in social media postings and at virtual School Committee meetings.

“I thought our advocacy would result in more in-person learning, at least K-5,” Infurna said. “In the end, it may have prevented us from only having remote learning. ... I think of my kids and it breaks my heart.”

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Across Massachusetts, heated debates over school reopenings have dominated the summer and often are unfolding in communities where active COVID-19 cases are nearly nonexistent. The rate of residents testing positive for COVID-19 over the past two weeks was less than 1 percent in more than half of the state’s cities and towns. Yet very few districts have indicated they will reopen schools to all students full time, five days a week.

Instead, districts are gravitating toward part-time in-person schooling or starting the year remotely for all or the vast majority of students, including communities with low infection rates, such as Dedham, Somerville, and Wayland.

The Winchester School Committee on Thursday decided in a 4-to-1 vote to give students two options — learning from home full time or doing two days of in-person classroom instruction and the rest of the week remotely.

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The increasing reality that most students will spend more time out of the classroom than in one appeared to iritate Governor Charlie Baker at a press conference last Friday.

“To say everybody should go remote, I mean first of all, the facts don’t support it, the data doesn’t support it, and the science doesn’t support it,” said Baker, who has urged districts to bring back as many students as possible.

But Baker is facing massive opposition from the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which are pushing for remote learning and instructing members not to enter buildings until state and local officials prove they are safe.

State officials, citing a smattering of studies and advice from medical experts, have insisted students and staff should be safe in school. Younger students tend to contract and transmit the virus at lower rates than adults, although those rates can increase for students closer to adulthood.

Winchester Superintendent Judith Evans said she would like to reopen schools full time — once it’s safe — but other factors complicate the decision. For instance, social distancing rules are slashing classroom capacity. Meanwhile, 30 percent of teachers have indicated they are at high risk for a severe coronavirus infection.

Consequently, the district would need to hire even more teachers to add socially-distant classrooms. That comes at a time when the district is running budget shortfalls.

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“I understand and empathize with our families and staff members,” Evans said. “Many face extreme challenges balancing child care, work, and home responsibilities and are deeply worried about their family’s health and their children’s academic progress. If this were a matter of will or being more creative or thinking outside the box to bring more students back safely, we would do it.”

The state, acknowledging space is tight at many schools statewide, relaxed social distancing standards to 3 feet. Many districts have been reluctant to adopt the lower standard. Evans said many of her teachers indicated they would not be able to return to fully-enrolled classrooms at 3-feet social distancing, citing health concerns.

Unlike New York, Maine, and other states, Massachusetts did not establish reopening criteria that were tied to COVID-19 infection rates in local communities or regions. A state education spokesperson on Monday did not offer any explanation for the absence of such criteria.

“The Department continues to work with school superintendents and health officials to develop additional school opening guidelines and recommendations,” she said in a statement.

The World Health Organization recommends reopening schools after two-week infection rates drop below 5 percent. Only about a dozen Massachusetts communities are at or above 5 percent.

On Wednesday, a group of parents called Bring Kids Back MA is planning a State House rally to advocate for a “transparent, metrics-based approach” for reopening classrooms.

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The lack of public health criteria irks Jena Howard, a mother of three in Woburn, where the two-week COVID infection rate is below 2 percent. She pushed for a full return, but school officials plan to offer only two days of in-person instruction and three days of remote learning a week.

On Friday, Howard decided to enroll all her children in a Catholic school. She blames teacher unions for the reluctance of school systems to reopen full time.

“They are a powerful entity that is pushing for remote learning only,” she said. “The number of parents outweighs the union members yet we just don’t have the bargaining power that the unions have and our voices are being overshadowed by the angry mob.”

Advocates for a full return tend to be parents of young children, who require much attention navigating Zoom classes, completing online assignments, or doing hands-on projects. State guidelines for reopening schools urged districts to make in-person instruction a top priority for elementary-school students because they are not independent learners yet.

But some parents say districts aren’t doing enough to accommodate them.

“We are very fearful for the fall,” said Erika Hoffman, of Winchester, who had to put aside her grant-writing job to oversee her two young children’s education. Her youngest son, a kindergartner in the spring, lost his love for school and the social isolation took a toll.

“We struggled to get him to do worksheets,” she said. “When they had Zoom classes three times a week, he didn’t want to participate. He would cry and run to his room and hide. He was struggling emotionally, and he became really depressed.”

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Many Winchester parents say school officials are not thinking creatively. Parents suggested using churches, other community spaces, and a former elementary school that houses the superintendent’s office for additional classrooms.

But school officials shot down the ideas. Evans said she would need to add 110 classrooms to the town’s five elementary schools, costing more than $6 million. Two elementary schools already have modular classrooms. The former elementary school cannot be used because it is not fully handicap accessible.

And, of course, not all parents share the same outlook. Pamela Cort, a parent of two high school students, was leaning toward allowing her children attend school part time, but as the state’s COVID-19 rate increased and more research into the negative effects of the virus on children emerged, she decided remote-only was the safer option.

She wished the entire school system would start remotely, but added she understood why school officials decided to give parents a choice.

When the time is right for a full return, Evans emphasized she will rely on data and medical expertise. But she cautioned that the unpredictable course of the pandemic could prompt full-scale remote learning.

Winchester parents urging a full return haven’t given up. They intend to write letters to the governor and pitch in with other statewide efforts.

“If we don’t use data,” Infurna said, “it’s just politics and it’s going to impact the academic, social, and emotional progress of our children and no one is hearing their voices.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.