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With the first day of school approaching, parents and students share dueling anxieties

Ella James Berg Powers, 7, a second grader in Worcester, held a sign that read, "I'm concerned about not being safe" during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."
Ella James Berg Powers, 7, a second grader in Worcester, held a sign that read, "I'm concerned about not being safe" during a rally held by the American Federation of Teachers outside the State House to call on Governor Charlie Baker "to take action in support of safe and healthy public schools and colleges."Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A girl in Everett hopes she’ll hear more from her teachers. A Chelsea student wonders how she’ll juggle her studies and helping her sister learn remotely. And an immigrant mother in Lowell fears her son could fail courses because of his inability to understand his teachers.

As the first day of school approaches — Sept. 16 for many of the state’s 950,000 public school students — anxieties are mounting among parents and children about education in the COVID-19 era. Many have grown increasingly vocal this week, as school districts finalize plans and negotiate with teachers’ unions over how much time students should spend in school buildings or learning on a computer screen.

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“I honestly don’t think we should go back to school until all this is really over,” said Jay’dha Rackard, an incoming seventh grader at Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Boston who fears she or her family could get sick. But going to school with coronavirus restrictions in place, she added, could be awful.

“It is cruel and mean to think that students should be in a room at their seats, not moving for hours,” she said. “Social time with friends in our grade and outside our grade is very important.”

The Boston Teachers Union held a rally at City Hall in August calling for more safety precautions in reopening.
The Boston Teachers Union held a rally at City Hall in August calling for more safety precautions in reopening. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Rackard was among the speakers at a virtual news conference Thursday held by the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, including parents, students, and educators, who largely spoke about wanting to improve remote learning.

The conference came a day after another group of parents, Bring Kids Back, wrote an open letter to state and education leaders urging them to offer children in-person learning “now and for as long as community‐level data shows it can be done safely.”

“Our children’s academic, social and emotional well‐being hinges on the immediate adoption of a data‐driven approach designed to safely get children back in the classroom,” the letter said.

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Parents with that group accused leaders of letting fear, not data, drive the decision-making. They said remote learning causes worse physical and mental health issues caused by too much screen time, disrupted routines, and a lack of in-person interaction with peers and teachers.

Natalia Hunik discussed with other parents why Lexington schools should fully reopen in the fall during a protest at Emery Park in July.
Natalia Hunik discussed with other parents why Lexington schools should fully reopen in the fall during a protest at Emery Park in July. Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

About 70 percent of school districts in Massachusetts have chosen either to bring students back to buildings or a hybrid plan that mixes remote and in-person instruction. Governor Charlie Baker has urged districts to safely return as many students to in-person classes as possible.

The group advocating against returning to school buildings acknowledged remote learning was still far from perfect. But they said the focus should be on improving the experience until the pandemic ends or is under far better control.

“In the spring, I felt like we didn’t learn anything,” said Araceli Flores, 16, a student at Everett High School. And for the fall also, she said, “my fear is I won’t be able to learn.” She has no confidence, she said, that her school could keep her and her classmates safe with masks and cleaning supplies, because before the pandemic the school couldn’t afford general materials.

Victoria Stutto, 17, a rising senior at Chelsea High School, said her father died shortly after remote learning started, and she struggled to cope, especially without her friends. She found schoolwork, especially on a screen, impossible to focus on. Some teachers were helpful, but others told her there were “no exceptions,” she said.

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“Remote learning probably came at the worst possible time in my life and it didn’t help that it wasn’t very organized and my teachers weren’t very understanding,” she said.

She and her classmate, Katy Ochoa, recommended that each school have a designated person students could contact about personal situations to help form solutions on a case-by-case basis.

Amid rising rents and an economic crisis, Ochoa said, many “students feel they have to choose between their education and supporting their families.” She said she found herself in that position, having to balance her own studies and helping her sister pass her coursework.

Stutto said she would not feel safe returning to Chelsea High until the number of COVID-19 cases fell significantly in Chelsea, one of the hardest-hit cities in Massachusetts, and the school or government provided masks, hand sanitizer, and other protective supplies for free, so everyone would have them.

Luz Adriana Gamba, a Colombian immigrant with three children in Lowell, said she hoped the schools would better communicate this semester. Her 16-year-old son, who is learning English, didn’t understand his assignments last spring and ended up failing some classes, she said.

Suleika Soto, a mother of two Boston students, said she chose the hybrid plan for her children, but felt conflicted about it. She had COVID-19 last spring and didn’t work, but now her unemployment benefits are ending and she needs to return to work.

“There is really no child care out there, so school’s my next best option,” Soto said. “I know this is high-risk, but I’m kind of stuck.”

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She also hopes her kids’ time with other students and teachers helps their mental well-being, but not at the expense of their physical health. She’d feel a lot better if everyone entering their schools had to show a negative COVID-19 test first.


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.