Massachusetts state leaders want this school year to be as normal as possible: all children in school buildings every day, optional masking policies left up to local communities, and absolutely no remote learning.
But amid recent closures of local summer camps, the abrupt shutdown of schools in other states, and rising rates nationwide of children being hospitalized with COVID, some parents, school leaders, and experts are questioning whether the state’s ban on remote learning may be unrealistic — and possibly unsafe. Most schools won’t mandate vaccination and even if they did, many students still are too young for the shot.
The uncertainty has left some schools to quietly create their own contingency plans, including preparing weeks of homework for students to do if they’re forced to go home. Educators — along with researchers and families — widely agree that remote learning harmed many students’ academic, social, and emotional wellbeing, but they also fear it may be too early to completely nix it.
“If we have to shut down a school and remote learning isn’t an option, what the hell are we doing?” Burlington Superintendent Eric Conti said. “We feel like we’re operating without a net.”
Across the country, some states, including New York and California, are mandating the COVID vaccine or weekly testing for teachers. There is no such requirement in Massachusetts, where Governor Charlie Baker has said that he is opposed to statewide mandates for government employees and that it should be a local choice. Boston and Lexington have required school staffers be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID testing, and many districts have mandated masks in schools for teachers, staff, and students including Boston, Worcester, Somerville, Amherst, Salem, Revere, and Cambridge.
“There are so many more questions this year because of Delta and we just don’t know enough about it,” Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said. After two Cambridge summer camps closed in recent weeks after COVID-19 cases, Siddiqui is even more worried about how the district will make sure students keep learning when remote learning is not an option.
The state, however, says it’s trying to minimize disruptions by offering free rapid testing to schools so entire classes won’t have to quarantine should someone test positive. The state also has offered all public schools free, onsite weekly proactive COVID testing.
Baker said last week he expects the number of vaccinated young people in seventh through 12th grade to rise to 80 percent by the fall. As of Aug. 3, about 64 percent of teens age 12 to 19 have received at least one vaccine shot in Massachusetts, state data show.
For kids in sixth grade and younger who aren’t eligible for vaccination, Baker reiterated that the state has issued a “strong recommendation” that they wear masks. Baker believes the vaccine could be made available for those children during the fall. Last month, a Food and Drug Administration official set a less optimistic timeline — early to mid-winter.
“We’re perfectly positioned to make sure that kids and adults will be safe when they go back to school,” Baker said. “We fully expect everybody to be in-person.”
Massachusetts is among eight states that have restricted districts from offering remote learning this school year. In Florida, local school leaders have required masks and added virtual options in defiance of state orders. The Texas Supreme Court has temporarily upheld that state’s ban on mask mandates after districts tried to require face coverings.
As the Delta variant spreads, about 20 percent of districts surveyed nationwide report they’ll adopt so-called “hybrid models” of remote and in-person learning, up from 10 percent a month earlier, according to a survey by the EdWeek Research Center. Most hybrid districts report that a tiny sliver of students will learn online, the survey said.
Daniele Lantagne, an infectious diseases expert at Tufts University who helps develop COVID guidance for the World Health Organization, said Massachusetts is right to insist on in-person learning amid low COVID infections and high vaccination rates. A new variant could emerge later that escapes vaccines, she said, which could require school closures.
“You have a window now,” said Lantagne, who has two young children. “This is nowhere near over. Do we want a remote schooling option for five years? … We need students in classrooms as much of the time as possible.”
She said society should treat the danger that COVID poses to children as similar to the flu. As of Aug. 5, 371 children have died during the pandemic from COVID. She pointed out the United States typically sees in the ballpark of 100 to 300 child deaths per year due to the flu and another common virus, respiratory syncytial virus, each.
In some ways, Massachusetts leaders are already thinking this way. State education officials stopped tracking COVID cases for summer school and recently announced they won’t track cases during the school year.
Not all health experts agree. Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatric infectious diseases and virology expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said Massachusetts’ lack of both remote learning and a universal school-masking mandate could be dangerous. The Delta variant has caused upticks in youth hospitalizations at his hospital and around the country, a trend he expects could worsen as the weather grows colder and people move indoors. (Boston Children’s Hospital said Thursday it has not seen an increase.)
“I’m generally an optimist, but you feel like you’re falling off a cliff in slow motion, watching what’s about to happen,” Offit said.
Despite state officials’ confidence that this school year will see minimal COVID disruptions, some families and educators worry that recent Boston-area summer camp closures predict a more chaotic reality.
In Cambridge, Jeff Davis and Andrea Love experienced the roller coaster firsthand: They were excited to send their boys, 4 and 6, to summer camp at the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House. The Cambridge nonprofit was a lifeline last year, giving their older son a supportive place to play with other kids and learn remotely when schools closed.
Last month, the camp notified families someone had tested positive for COVID. Soon their sons fell ill and also tested positive. Even though Davis and Love were vaccinated, they also caught the virus. The camp closed for two weeks.
Cambridge health officials confirmed that a recent outbreak involving the Delta variant at a summer camp led to 20 children under 12 testing positive along with three staffers and another nine household members.
It wasn’t clear how the outbreak occurred; everyone at the camp wore masks and washed their hands frequently — which Cambridge health officials confirmed.
“Easily, what happened at Margaret Fuller will happen at school, given how quickly it spreads,” said Love. “I’m very worried about the fall and the continuity of school.”