A group of Boston parents on Tuesday held a virtual rally to protest the school district’s lack of remote learning options for the school year that starts on Sept. 9.
Most parents at the rally had kids with complex and fragile medical conditions.
"I'm really freaked out," said Courtney Karp, whose daughter has been hospitalized several times in the past for severe respiratory infections.
"We know that when [health experts] say that 'most' kids don’t get COVID-19 or most kids don’t have severe consequences ... that 'most' unfortunately excludes our daughter," added Karp's husband, Roy.
The Karps, and others who are members of the newly formed Massachusetts Parents for Remote Learning Options, want their children’s schools to offer remote learning opportunities until the COVID-19 vaccine is approved for children younger than 12. That approval is currently projected to come by mid-winter at the earliest.
Remote learning holds significant support among Boston parents. According to a district survey released in May, more than 1,700 parents out of the 3,208 who responded said they were either "very" or "somewhat" likely to enroll their kids in a full-time virtual school. A recent petition released by the parent group currently has more than 500 signatures.
Officials with Boston Public Schools explored the idea of creating a virtual classroom last spring, but ultimately decided against it. Officials say there wasn’t enough time to plan and gather community input to make it work, but added, the district is continuing to explore a virtual option for future school years.
Seven Massachusetts school districts have been approved by the state to operate single district virtual schools. Most of them have limited participation in those programs for kids with very specific learning and health needs. In Chelsea, one of the approved districts, the new virtual school serves just seven kids.
Massachusetts parents have other options if they're uncomfortable with in-person learning, like home schooling or enrolling in one of the two Commonwealth Virtual Schools that have been around since before the pandemic.
But for many parents at Tuesday's rally, those aren't great choices. Lucas Aviles says he and his daughter, who has Down Syndrome, love the school she goes to. He worries that if he were to withdraw her for a year to homeschool, she'd likely lose the spot she was given through the district's school assignment system that runs partially with a lottery.
"We want our child to go to her school," said Aviles. "The fact that we want to keep her alive should not be a reason she loses her seat."
Much of the limitations around virtual learning offerings stem from a state mandate created last spring. In March, state education commissioner Jeff Riley announced that remote learning would not count toward mandatory instructional hours after the 2020-2021 school year.
"We know when students are in school, they have the opportunity to learn important social and emotional skills, and they have access to mental health and other support services, as well as healthy meals," said Riley in a March memo to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The commissioner also points to a letter signed by a group of physicians and public health experts in Massachusetts supporting the idea that students are more isolated and suffer from more mental health and physical health issues while learning remotely.
Still, for parents like Keyona Aviles, those assurances aren't good enough. The risk of transmission and severe infection for her daughter, who has Down Syndrome, feel too great for her to be comfortable with in-person learning.
"I agree that virtual school did not cut it. It's not the same," said Keyona Aviles. "But to pretend the virus is not still active is not acceptable."