Continuing concerns about the coronavirus are leading Quincy Public School officials to start the school year remotely for most students, allowing only the youngest and those with special needs into the classrooms on alternating days.
So many families were surprised to learn last week that some students shut out of the classrooms will spend their “remote learning” days in the school gym — at a cost to their parents of $346 a week.
“I thought it wasn’t safe to go back to school?” one mother, Paula McDonough Glynn, protested on Facebook, where others demanded to know: Why were their kids allowed to come to school only if they paid for it?
Such baffling contradictions are taking shape at schools across Massachusetts, where wary parents and resistant teachers unions have balked at a full return to schools, even though Governor Charlie Baker has insisted it’s safe in most communities. Though state officials ordered school superintendents to develop detailed plans to restart education in-person, remotely, or through a combination of the two, the state never asked where children would be on the days they weren’t in school or demanded that out-of-school-time programs be part of the planning.
Now, six months into the pandemic with parents desperately trying to return to work, most children still will not be going back to school full time. Community organizations across the state are scrambling to provide care for children at a hodgepodge of local schools, church basements, and community centers.
In Boston, an array of programs that provide after-school care for low-income children intend to do it for free. The number of students who may need care is staggering — up to 20,000 in Boston alone, said James Morton, the president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater Boston. With its after-school programs forced out of Boston Public Schools by coronavirus concerns, the Y is rushing to rent about 30 alternative spaces for daylong supervision of students in remote learning before school starts on Sept. 21.
In mid-August, as it became apparent that most schools wouldn’t fully reopen, out-of-school-time providers sent a letter to state education officials begging for coordination and direction.
The two state agencies that oversee young children’s education — the Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and Early Education and Care — were independently developing two different sets of guidelines, the providers complained in their letter.
Education Secretary James Peyser, who oversees both departments, was in New Hampshire this week and unavailable for an interview, his spokeswoman said.
It was not until Aug. 28 that the two departments issued joint guidance allowing programs that operate before and after school to supervise children throughout the school day. Those programs still need to apply to both the state and their local municipality for approval.
“If a lot of this guidance had been issued much earlier, it would have enabled families to plan for the school year and to come up with better scenarios for their kids,” said Ardith Wieworka, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership.
“We were screaming at one point, ‘There’s going to be a shortfall here. We’re going to see a lot of inequities happen, children home alone, children not being able to learn, children not being safe,’ " said Debbie Kneeland-Keegan, executive director of For Kids Only, an out-of-school program that serves five Massachusetts communities.
Baker’s Aug. 28 executive order opened the door for such centers to open daylong “Remote Learning Enrichment Programs" with up to 26 youngsters, or 13 per teacher.
The state gave municipalities the responsibility of inspecting the spaces for safety and conducting employee criminal and sexual offender background checks. That worries some providers who are concerned the task will fall to local boards of health, who may be overwhelmed by the ongoing pandemic.
“It would have been much better if the state prioritized expanding existing licensed programs instead of at the eleventh hour issuing licensed exemptions for pop-up programs,” said Wieworka.
Community groups are now rushing to accommodate the needs of working families. In Chelsea, one of the cities hit hardest by the coronavirus, teachers are expected to spend two days teaching from empty classrooms to students watching at home. But For Kids Only hopes to be in the schools, supervising students who are learning remotely.
Other districts have shut community programs out of the schools, forcing them to find alternative sites to house many different groups of students. With each group limited to 13 students, Boston needs to find 1,538 spaces and teachers to accommodate them, noted Morton, of the YMCA. And he’s trying to provide the services for free. Still, he’s optimistic.
“We don’t have any alternative. We’ve got to move forward and do the planning — and assume that the resources to do this are going to come, because this is a critically needed service,” said Morton.
In Quincy, the teachers union is still negotiating the terms of reopening, but some in-classroom learning is likely to commence later in the fall, said Sean Greene, Quincy Education Association president. He would not comment on the gyms being used for remote learning but said educators remain concerned about COVID-19, which “remains a significant health risk in our state and in our country.”
Spokeswomen for the governor and for the departments of both public health and education did not respond directly when asked whether there’s any public health advantage to small-group remote education in lieu of classroom education.
Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education, said in a statement that the governor’s order “creates a necessary alternative to provide families additional support when municipalities are not offering in-person learning." She noted the programs must adhere to the same COVID-19 public health guidelines as schools.
William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was encouraged that the group sizes will be limited.
But as he and other epidemiologists have already warned about the “hybrid model," children’s risk of exposure could be increased if they are attending group programs with children other than those in their school cohort.
“If these children are in a group that is not the same as the group that they are in the rest of the time, then you’re just sort of blending those groups together and increasing the total number of contacts," he said.
The executive director of the Quincy program that will be working in the school gyms said no more than 20 children are enrolled in any school so far. “This isn’t a warehouse of child care,” said Sarah Morrison, of Quincy After School Child Care.
Her concern is for working families who have no other care options and might otherwise have to leave their children home alone.
“I can understand that our program’s presence within some public schools might cause some to be confused, but without our efforts, children would be less safe within our community.
“Unfortunately, we are all left fighting for kids with hands tied by the restrictions of regulation, herculean logistics, and unfathomable circumstances," she said.