After five months of pandemic living, the uncertainty over the new school year is pushing many parents to the brink. When it comes to returning to school, what parents want depends on what their children need and what the risk is for staying at home.
"Last year was an absolute disgrace," said Rich Perona, of Lexington. Like many parents, he and his wife were juggling working from home and remote learning for their 7- and 5-year-old children. "They have to do absolutely better for the amount of taxes we pay here. At the same time, [the teachers] gotta go back. You gotta do your job."
Perona was among a dozen parents and children who held signs in protest of Lexington's decision to start either hybrid or remote this fall.
Most wanted to put their kids back in school full time, and felt they should have more of a choice.
“It was awful," Nathalie Huitema, who has three kids in Lexington schools, said of last spring. "I wouldn’t call it learning... They just had busy work.”
It's the first time Perona has ever engaged in a protest.
"I always laughed at this stuff," he said. "I’m like, ‘I am never doing a protest ... I think it's a waste of time.' I was that irate that these people are doing this."
Like most districts in the state, Lexington is giving parents a choice between all-remote or a hybrid model, with kids rotating between school buildings and online classes.
Local school leaders are caught in the crossfire. Gov. Charlie Baker wants them to do all they can to bring students back into buildings, especially in communities like Lexington, where transmission is low.
But the state's largest teachers unions want a remote start.
And there are racial differences. Among people of color, 40% prefer fully online learning, compared to 28% of white respondents. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4%.
“I don’t feel like the schools know how to really open the school safely for our teacher and our students," said Eliana Pineda, of Revere. She’s a full-time mom to a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old.
"I could be the mother who’s taking care of my children, making sure they’re sick and stay home," she said. "But there are other parents that don’t do that and there are other parents who are not able to do that due to their jobs."
Revere’s cases are on the rise, with a positive test rate roughly three times the state’s average. It’s why the school committee is planning a remote start.
Malden, labeled as "moderate risk" by the state, is going all online, too.
Orman Beckles, of Malden, believes it's the right choice. He's at higher risk because of high blood pressure and diabetes. His 86-year-old mother, a retired nurse, lives with his family.
While his 11-year-old son misses school and his friends, Beckles is worried about a different mental weight.
“How’s he going to feel if he gets COVID, is asymptomatic, and brings back the virus and one or more of his family members dies?" Beckles asked. "How is that going to affect him for the rest of his life? That’s the no-go. I don’t want that to happen.”
A large study to be published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases shows children 10 and older are just as likely to get and transmit the coronavirus as adults, while younger children appear to transmit the virus less often (although they can become ill).
As challenging as these choices are, some parents do have resources. They're able to stay at home with their kids. It’s the students who have special education needs or are in unsafe, or unstable, living situations that worry many education leaders and physicians.
“That’s one of my biggest concerns with starting remote is that it’s just going to be like, 'Well, why should we go back? We’re not seeing any of the consequences yet,' " said Dr. Gabrielle Jacquet, an emergency room physician at Boston Medical Center. "But that’s because we’re not even seeing the kids with bruises. We’re not seeing the kids that aren’t getting fed. We’re not seeing the kids whose parents are overdosing. So they’re not on their Zoom calls. We can’t know what we don’t measure."
Jacquet is also on the reopening task force for her 6-year-old’s Somerville school. She thinks districts should prioritize bringing vulnerable and young students back into the classroom full time.
She also believes schools can get enough personal protective equipment and take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, just as doctors and nurses have done in her emergency room.
“It has broken my heart talking to my friends who are teachers and learning that they are completely shell shocked from what they’re seeing in the news," Jacquet said. "If I’m able to spend a little bit of time talking to them about how PPE works and how I’ve been able to keep my family completely safe and continue to see my mother, then their face relaxes.”
While Jacquet said none of her colleagues have gotten sick with COVID-19, some doctors and nurses have. There’s always a risk. Right now, schools and parents are weighing which risks they are willing to take.
This segment aired on August 13, 2020.