In a town hall last month, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley opened up a virtual discussion with parents, telling them to make their preferences clear when it comes to the three options for heading back to school, as presented by the state: in-person schooling, online school, or a hybrid of both.
"You're the parent," Riley said. "You know what's best for your kid. And so we want you to feel comfortable when you decide to send your kid back to school."
These guidelines, which many parents have criticized as vague, were released early on purpose, Riley said, to secure more funding for the upcoming school year.
“We need to advocate now, and continue to over the summer, for our sector,” Riley said. “At the end of the day, our kids are our most precious resource. And, you know, a budget is a moral document and you've got to decide what it is that's important to you on Beacon Hill, the people that make the laws and give out the money. And I just think when you make the case, that it's our kids that deserve the money.”
With that said, the end of the summer is quickly approaching, and parents and teachers are still a little confused about what, exactly, that will look like.
Jenn McNary is a single mom of four kids living in Saugus. Her two older sons have muscular dystrophy, her daughter has asthma, and she has a 12-year-old with primary immune deficiency — which means he basically has no immune system. One of McNary’s sons is home most of the time in a home hospital situation, and she says she's been incredibly frustrated with the online school options.
“It was completely disorganized and really difficult to follow.” McNary said. “My kids were not able to access their special ed. My oldest son has limited use of his hands and arms. He also has full special ed. So it was impossible for him to access his education.”
Because of her family’s health problems, McNary has had to pull her children out of school before. She said the calmest people during this pandemic are probably parents of children who have chronic health issues, because they have already faced situations where they had to prioritize staying alive over getting an education.
“Kids are resilient, and I know that health is the most important thing, so the prospect of having a year where none of my children receive any professional education doesn't scare me,” McNary said. “That said, I think that it's important that I don't just plop them in front of the television and, you know, just hope for the best. I would like them to have an educational experience.”
McNary's plan is to homeschool her kids with as many resources as she can get from the school, the library and other community services. She says educating children during a pandemic should make everyone rethink what role school plays in their lives.
“What this has done is pointed out how broken our educational system is,” McNary said. “We're not talking about students that need to go back to school so they can be educated. We're talking about students that need to go back to school so they have a meal and a safe place to be and a social opportunity. We're talking about something completely different.”
While parents are obviously stressed, the looming school year is also taking a toll on teachers, who will shoulder a great part of the responsibility to keep children safe.
Holly Whipp teaches at a school in New Bedford. She said she's been really frustrated with messages from the Trump administration, which has said that schools might lose funding if they don't reopen in person.
“I guess their vision of schools is that it's like a kids-only utopia,” Whipp said. “School buildings are made up of lots of different types of people, including adults. There are teachers, maintenance workers, custodians, office staff, cafeteria workers, nurses, lots of different people.”
Whipp said she's really dubious about how in-person schooling would work, since schools like hers are in old buildings and have really bad air circulation. Additionally, teachers will be expected to enforce mask-wearing and social distance rules.
“We're asking children from the ages of 5 to 18 to wear masks for six-plus hours a day, with short breaks in between,” Whipp said. “I mean, I'm a 27-year-old adult, and I can barely wear a mask for more than 30 minutes.”
Whipp also says that teachers who don't want to go back to school also don't want to do school online — none of the options during a global pandemic are exactly ideal.
“It's not that as teachers, we don't want to go back to school and see our kids,” Whipp said. “Any teacher you would talk to would tell you the complete opposite. We miss our kids so much. But we're still human beings, we're not martyrs, just because we teach kids. We can get sick and have our own families and people we care about at home. ... It's not fair.”
Whipp says this environment raises a larger question about the role of educators in modern society — what role are they being asked to play, and what role should they play? What are the standards that we expect students to adhere to, and by what metrics are we establishing those standards?