Massachusetts parents are scrambling for other schooling options amid a surge in coronavirus cases, leaving some of them scared and without any education alternative.
“It’s in God’s hands,” said Worcester mother Noemi Villanueva in Spanish. “It doesn’t feel safe, but I don’t have a choice but to send them back to their schools.”
State leaders have reiterated their ban on remote learning after virtual learning left many families frustrated and many students unmotivated. While most students will return to in-person learning, hundreds of parents from Boston to Worcester to Quincy are moving to home school their children as Delta variant cases spike, or are seeking a spot in one of two state virtual schools, which already have long waiting lists.
Education advocates fear the state’s stance will push students out of school or prompt them to skip class, as many families don’t have the option to teach their children at home.
“If we don’t offer a remote option, we’ll have to expect a high level of absenteeism in some communities,” said Will Austin, a former educator who now runs the Boston Schools Fund, an organization that helps enlarge high-quality schools.
Massachusetts stands apart from most of the country with a ban on distance learning, a decision made last spring as cases were declining. The state is allowing exceptions in only a few instances. But some parents and students are only now realizing they won’t have that option and question why state and local leaders didn’t leave the discretion to families.
Allston resident Daniela Silva assumed COVID-19 cases would spike this fall and Boston Public Schools would switch all classes online after a few weeks.
Her son, who is entering the seventh grade, thrived learning remotely last year at the Boys & Girls Club. He wasn’t distracted by other students and received one-on-one help from adults when he didn’t understand an assignment. He made the honor roll for the first time.
“That shows he needs extra support and wasn’t getting it at school,” she said.
BPS could have applied for a waiver to establish a special remote learning program, but did not complete the state application process, leaving parents without a choice. The decision frustrates Silva, who didn’t know there wouldn’t be any virtual option until a reporter informed her.
“That’s something they should have [told parents] at the end of the year,” Silva said, noting she now will home school her son. “There’s stuff I could have done.”
Priyanka Rajoria, mother to a rising second-grader in Quincy, said she also will withdraw her son and handle his education herself after learning only a few weeks ago that her district won’t offer remote learning.
“I’m very strong about not sending [my son] to school unless there’s a vaccine,” said Rajoria, who lost two family members, including a seven-month-old niece, to the virus. She started a petition on Aug. 19 asking the state to allow virtual learning for elementary school children. As of Tuesday morning, more than 235 parents, many of them Quincy mothers, have signed. Most of them are taking steps to home school their children, according to Rajoria.
For much of last year, the state let districts decide whether to educate students in person, online, or by a hybrid of the two. In the spring, Governor Charlie Baker changed course and mandated all schools offer in-person learning five days a week, but continued to allow students to keep studying remotely.
For this school year, state leaders say they won’t count any time districts spend teaching remotely toward the required hours of learning schools must complete.
“The documented negative impact on children that resulted from the uneven, unpredictable, and profoundly difficult year that students had last year cannot and must not happen again,” Baker said last month. “In-person learning is the only available option for Massachusetts schools and their students.”
Baker has noted Massachusetts is among the leading states in the nation in vaccination rates and has one of the lowest hospitalization rates in the country, making reopening of schools safer.
However, vaccinations for children under 12 likely won’t be authorized until midwinter, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Immunization rates among teens vary widely by city, from around 42 percent in Springfield to more than 95 percent in Lexington and Needham. Districts with lower vaccination rates — mostly urban centers with larger Black and Latino populations — may face more challenges keeping children in school this fall. (In Boston, a little over half of students ages 12-19 have received at least one shot.)
Deaths from COVID-19 among children in the United States remain low. According to American Academy of Pediatrics data, one in 100 children infected with the virus has been hospitalized, and about 400 have died. But for most parents, any number is too many.
Some educators, parents, and advocates worry Massachusetts schools aren’t taking the same precautions they did in the spring, when they required at least 3 feet of social distancing and masks were required for everyone all school year.
“Society didn’t do what it needed to do to make schools safe . . . at minimum the state should give families a virtual option,” said Chris Buttimer, a researcher at MIT who has written about the online learning experiences of Massachusetts students and teachers.
Hundreds of parents have flocked to the state’s two statewide virtual schools — TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School and Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School — because their children either preferred online learning or they fear the Delta variant. The schools, which are fully accredited by the state, serve nearly 3,500 students, while 1,000 more wait for spots.
“We exploded during the pandemic,” said Michelle Morrissey, enrollment director for Greenfield Commonwealth.
The state has given the go-ahead to seven districts to create their own virtual schools this year: Attleboro, Brockton, Chelsea, Peabody, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Westfield.
More than 1,600 Boston parents said they wanted remote learning when the district surveyed them in the spring. Boston didn’t complete the application process to create its own distance learning program, but could pursue that option in future school years.
Worcester, the state’s second-largest district, also didn’t have a virtual school when classes started this week. Some parents in the district are worried about the city’s aging and crowded school buildings, which they fear won’t allow children to social distance.
“We’re being set up for failure,” Worcester parent organizer Nelly Medina said, adding that home schooling requires flexible schedules and parents who work from home, an option not many families have. “We have to choose between breaking the law and getting involved in [the Department of Children and Families] or sending our kids into a potential deathtrap.”