How schools should respond to COVID-19 has been a hotbed for debate since the start of the pandemic.
The latest battle comes as schools reopened following the winter break amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. Nearly a dozen school districts across the state chose to delay reopening after facing a limited supply of COVID tests and staff pushback.
We asked parents and school staff and faculty how schools should handle the return to the classroom following the recess.
As with previous decisions about reopening during the pandemic, readers were divided on the issue with a slight preference for temporarily closing schools once again. Forty-seven percent of the more than 200 readers who responded to the survey said schools should go remote until the surge passes while 45 percent said they should remain fully open for in-person instruction.
Omicron now accounts for 95 percent of cases in Massachusetts, and the state is reporting tens of thousands of new cases. Despite many school districts reopening as usual this week, some faced shortages as teachers, bus drivers, and other staff called out of work.
In a separate Boston.com poll, the vast majority of the more than 600 respondents said they knew of students, faculty, or staff testing positive for COVID-19 in their own school community.
“Not much we can do at this point,” said reader JC. “My son’s high school of 1,000 had 70 cases just today which is more than all of last year and this past Fall combined.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, Mass. Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, and other schools officials continue to hold firm on schools staying open.
“The rules here are pretty simple,” Gov. Baker said. “We count in-person school as school. If a school district is not open, at some point over the course of the year, they can use snow days until they run out of snow days, but they do need to provide their kids with 180 days of in-person education this year. And we’ll do whatever we can to help them deliver on that.”
Boston mayor Michelle Wu recently called out the inflexibility of the state’s decision against remote learning, even in the case of staff shortages. Several of our readers expressed similar frustration.
“The inflexibility of Baker and Riley is causing many students to miss school to avoid being exposed. They should have gone remote until the positivity rate comes down. It remains the only way we continue education in a very confusing, often downright nonsensical public health world we find ourselves in,” said Bruce from Marshfield.
Even with the acknowledged limitations of remote learning, such as a lack of access to technology and difficulty in replicating social learning, some readers said the ability to have remote learning be an option would provide some much-needed peace of mind.
“Hybrid was a nightmare for teachers and some kids need to be in-person, but that’s a poor excuse for punishing kids and families for whom COVID is a real risk,” said Ashley from Boston. “I’m writing from the ER at MGH where my child has just been admitted with a severe asthma attack. The last thing she needs is to be exposed to COVID and she can’t eat the whole school day. She can’t control others’ proper mask-wearing. And her little brother going to school is a risk to her too. Remote should be an easy option for kids/families who want it.”
For readers who said schools should remain open despite the current and potential future surges, learning loss and the mental health of students weigh above all else.
“Our schools must remain open. The health risk to children is low,” said Robin L. from Saugus. “However, the risk to their education and more importantly their mental health is high. We cannot repeat the past. COVID is here to stay therefore we must adjust and move forward.”
Below you’ll find a sampling of responses from readers on what approaches they think would be best for school districts to take in the coming weeks, whether that be in-person, remote, or hybrid learning.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What do you think is the best approach for schools amid the current COVID surge?
Go remote until the surge passes.
“With a 30% absentee rate for Boston Public Schools on Jan. 4, it seems the parents/data have already made the choice. I know I’m among the 70% who sent their kids but I felt sick doing so. However, I don’t get time off unless the school either closes or my kid is exposed or positive. I’m all for schools being open this year but I think a small pause for remote learning for a few weeks as a circuit breaker to slow the spread will be a wise investment in our community health.” — Sefira B., Boston
“It is not only kids but immunocompromised family members who are also at risk, especially when we know vaccines do not prevent infection/ transmission but help to avoid severe cases. Families with immunocompromised members would therefore be still at high risk of any infections. I would keep remote school until February. If kids keep coming to school infected, they will infect others and next week those would infect others — a vicious cycle that we need to break. They should mandate testing students, personnel [and] enforce proper use of masks. … Install more air purifiers.” — Esin Y., Roslindale
“I’m a BPS parent, and it is making me crazy to have to send my kids off to school knowing that it is almost impossible that they will avoid infection with COVID — after everything we have done to protect them over the last two years. Jeff Riley is forcing us into a herd immunity strategy. I understand that generally, it’s best for kids to be in school, but two or three weeks of remote or hybrid learning is what makes sense right now.” — Rebecca, Boston
“I’m a grandparent of four elementary school students, the mother of a high school teacher, and a retired occupational health specialist. The ‘layered approach’ needed to reduce exposure to this very contagious omicron variant is not properly in place in many schools. There are problems with pool testing, contact tracing, and ‘test-and-stay’ (including lack of supplies, lack of staffing); problems with access to vaccinations; problems with proper ventilation and filtration (especially in the many schools that lack HVAC systems); problems with masking and lack of access to more protective masks; and the list goes on. Many educators, school staff, and students are out with COVID. Remote schooling for a few weeks will help protect the health of students, educators, staff, and their families and communities.” — Nancy L., Jamaica Plain
“My biggest concern is hospitals being so overwhelmed that if my kid needs to end up at the hospital he will not get quality care. So I would prefer if we go remote for 2-4 weeks to wait for the surge to go down. I think school districts are doing all they can, especially Arlington. I think the issue is at the state level. The fact that getting a PCR test is so hard to do right now is infuriating. People are waiting 4+ hours to get tested. That is unacceptable. If the whole goal is to stop the spread then you need to make it easy for people to test. Also, rapid tests are hard to come by, we need more of them. In addition, the guidelines for test-and-stay protocols in schools need to be updated so that kids that are vaccinated also get tested every day if they are a close contact. This variant can still infect you if you are vaccinated so testing is crucial.” — Dylcia, Arlington
Continue to stay open and fully in-person.
“COVID is here to stay. We need to learn to live with it. That means following common-sense protocols, hand washing, staying home when sick, wearing masks, etc. The toll that remote learning has taken on kids is tremendous. School isn’t just about book learning. Kids learn how to interact with their peers and adults, they make friends, play sports, participate in band and chorus, etc. Remote learning deprives kids of all this. It also forces parents to become teachers as well — a job many are not cut out for or have the knowledge to be successful at ( this is not a knock on parents intelligence but teaching methods are very different today than when most parents went to school), which makes for frustrated parents and kids. The bottom line is remote learning didn’t do anything significant to mitigate the spread of COVID, but it did have a significant impact (negative) on the education of our children!” — John O., Ayer
“I think we need to push ourselves to continue working and operating despite COVID. With vaccinations, the people in great danger are only the unvaccinated, elderly, and those with extensive co-morbidities. There must be a better way to keep that population to be safe than shuttering our whole population — schools and businesses — and going back to remote, which does not work. It’s not a permanent solution. We need to be working towards permanent, workable solutions because COVID is here to stay.” — Neathery, Jamaica Plain
“I have a 6-year-old in Boston public and he needs to be in school. Not only because his mother and I have to work but he needs the interaction with children, the structure for learning, and the in-person experience to help him become the student he needs to be. This can’t be accomplished remotely.” — Jason, Boston
“As both a teacher (at the high school level) and a parent of a first-grader, I think school systems should do everything possible to maintain the continuity of in-person instruction. As a teacher, I learned last year that remote instruction was an extremely poor substitute for in-person learning; as a parent, I viscerally experienced the chaos created for families when children are not able to attend school in-person. The emerging evidence seems to suggest that omicron is bringing a storm of new infections that will be intense but short-lived. The best way for schools to weather that storm is to keep children in the building if it is at all possible to do so.” — Tim M., Framingham
“School staff should be classified as essential workers. Kids have fallen behind academically, but worse, are suffering emotionally and socially. In my network alone, anecdotally, more than 75% of kids we are close to as a family are in some sort of therapy because of mental health issues, some very serious. Academically, public school kids are falling even further behind their peers in private schools, putting them at a greater disadvantage.” — Amy W., Andover
Offer a hybrid model for anyone infected.
“It’s important for kids to be in the classroom as much as possible but the reality is we have kids out for weeks at a time between isolation times and testing delays. Offering a hybrid option allowing kids who have been infected or recently exposed to the virus would allow them to keep learning during these inevitable times when they can’t be in the classroom. Our 6-year-old has now been a close contact twice, forcing him out of school for a week plus each time, and we’re barely into the new year — and we don’t even take him into the supermarket, let alone do extracurricular activities or have play dates. What’s so frustrating is the situation we’re currently in (surging cases, COVID running through every school in the state) was foreseeable at the beginning of the school year, but it seems the school districts did not plan for it.” — Heather, Natick
“Omicron is so transmissible that almost all households will be exposed to it. Allowing students to keep learning while quarantining if sick will provide two things: 1) continuity to the school year for all students, 2) stop penalizing families that get tested. Right now, if someone tests positive, then they (and their family members) should self-quarantine regardless of symptoms. For children, this comes with the twin problems of falling behind in school, and a lack of child care for impacted families. This absolutely discourages testing, which further exacerbates the spread of disease. We can’t solve the childcare issue, but at least kids who test positive and have relatively minor [symptoms] (or no symptoms) can keep up with their classmates at home. We cannot lockdown and escape this variant. I think a lockdown at this point will just draw out the omicron wave, not prevent or stop it.” — Kate, Acton
Boston.com occasionally interacts with readers by conducting informal polls and surveys. These results should be read as an unscientific gauge of readers’ opinion.