When summer began, my wife and I decided our daughter should return to in-person learning this Fall. It was not a decision we took lightly. For fifteen months, we had been extremely cautious due to her ongoing pulmonary vulnerability stemming for her extremely premature birth. But with Covid numbers finally coming down, the risk-benefit analysis weighed in favor of sending her back into the Henderson Inclusion School to gain from social engagement with her second-grade teachers and peers.
Then the Delta variant emerged and the calculus changed. As the school year approached, we began to dread the idea of her entering the building while still unvaccinated. But state policy makers seem to have missed the memo. Gov. Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley have taken virtual and hybrid learning off the table, telling parents they must accept the known risks to their children’s health and safety, possibly even their lives.
They have stood by this policy decision even as the more contagious variant rages across the country. “This is probably the most dangerous time in the pandemic for children,” notes Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. During the last week of August alone, more than 250,000 American children contracted Covid, representing more than a quarter of all new cases.
We have already seen schools across the country shut down due to coronavirus outbreaks. When asked about two outbreaks in Melrose, the governor said he would still not consider remote learning options. He suggested that schools use snow days if they need to keep their kids at home and that, ultimately, the only solution is for everyone to get vaccinated. Aside from being tone deaf to parent concerns, this response fails to consider children under age 12 who are not even vaccine eligible.
Parents are justifiably frightened, and many are starting to get politically active. My wife and I joined together with other Henderson parents — Keyona and Luke Aviles and Bethany Van Deflt Moffi and Jayme Moffi — to form MA Parents for Remote Learning Options (maparents4remoteoptions.org). then linked up with a mom in JP who started an online petition that aligned with our goals, pressing for online options with saved seats for children under 12 (change.org/VirtualUntilVaccinated).
Our campaign is gaining momentum. A large number of parents want the option of keeping their kids at home while remaining connected to their school community. According to a survey conducted by the Boston Public Schools in June, fully two-thirds of the 17,000 respondents expressed interest in either a virtual or hybrid model. The percentage was even higher in communities of color, which have borne a disparate burden from the virus. And that was before Delta when Covid numbers were at an all-time low.
The one size fits all approach fails to consider increased health risks to students with complex medical issues (or to high-risk family members, especially in multi-generational households.) It also violates the spirit if not the letter of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires schools to develop individualized education plans for students with disabilities. Remote learning would increase the safety of students and staff inside school buildings by lowering the daily census, thus allowing for greater social distancing, and giving schools the flexibility to respond quickly when Covid outbreaks do occur.
But that is not where things stand right now. Like thousands of parents across Massachusetts, we must decide between putting our daughter in harm’s way or pulling her out of the school where she has been loved and well supported since she was three. This is a cruel choice to force upon parents, especially so given that it rests on the false premise that kids are not in real danger from Covid.