WITH LESS THAN TWO WEEKS until school starts, parents from Somerville and Newton say they have yet to get any details on what classes will look like for their children and whether remote learning will be better than it was when schools suddenly shut down last spring amid COVID-19.
“Families cannot live in a state of uncertainty,” said Keri Rodrigues of Somerville on The Codcast. “I am two weeks away from the first day of school in Somerville. I still don’t have a specific hour-by-hour schedule of what remote learning is going to look like, when my child is expected to be on Zoom. I don’t even know who my kids’ teachers are going to be and frankly they don’t know my kids either. I just spent six months with my children. I have a lot of information I’d like to tell their teachers about who they are, how they learn, and what they’re capable of. And there has not been any communication with me and … what this is going to look like when it gets down to brass tacks.”
Jack Cheng of Newton says he and his two teenagers are also in the dark. “They don’t know what school is going to be like and they’re frustrated,” he said.
Cheng is urging school officials to think outside the box, and is offering up specific suggestions for learning during COVID. “It seems like there’s a chance now to sort of reinvent what the school is going to be,” he said. Rodrigues, a mother of three boys in second, third, and seventh grade and the CEO of Massachusetts Parents United, is demanding answers to her many unanswered questions and looking outside the Somerville schools for help.
Parents across the state are having similar responses, and former state education secretary Paul Reville thinks this heightened parent activism “could become a tipping point for educational choice and, in its extreme form, the privatization of public education.”
One thing is clear: Cheng and Rodrigues are paying close attention to what’s going on in their schools. Cheng said 2,000 people joined online for a recent meeting of the Newton School Committee, which in normal times attracts less than a dozen attendees. “It’s the talk of the town,” he said of the upcoming school year. “There’s a lot of conflicting information. There’s a lot of rumors.”
Rodrigues said parents are getting a look behind the curtain at what goes on inside schools. “This is all playing out in our living rooms. So now we’re seeing directly how much academic instruction is happening, how much information and interaction our kids are having with teachers. We are more engaged now than ever – by necessity. So that’s not toothpaste you can put back in the tube very easily. We now know there are options,” she said.
The infighting between the Baker administration and teachers unions over how to return to school has overshadowed the bigger question for many parents of how schools should operate, how technology should be deployed.
“We’ve injected politics into the situation and kept families and community out of it. In the end, the kids are lost in the shuffle here,” said Rodrigues, who thinks parents need to have a much bigger say. “The fact that we’re not authentically engaged in co-collaboration and creation of these things is insane. People are not going to stand for that.”
Cheng is less confrontational than Rodrigues, but he would like to see more experimentation in teaching remotely. He acknowledges the challenges for schools, with COVID tolerance varying dramatically from family to family. But he thinks many of the policies being pursued are weak attempts to replicate the status quo. He said a neighbor told him her son, a special needs child who has an individual education plan, has been promised some in-person instruction this fall. “She said what that means is they’re going to set him up with his laptop in the school library or cafeteria and he’ll Zoom with teachers who may actually be in the school but it’s still going to be remote. It’s all kind of absurd,” he said.
Rodrigues said some teachers are balking at teaching remotely from their actual classrooms because they don’t want to come into the schools. She said she would like teachers teaching remotely from the schools, where they can collaborate with each other and be held accountable. “We’re throwing science out the window,” she said. “You don’t get COVID from being in an empty classroom.”
Rodrigues said she keeps hearing there will be very little actual teacher-student instruction this fall, which worries her greatly. “Time spent on learning and structured learning time are regulated by statute” and the Massachusetts Constitution guarantees all students “access to a high-quality education,” she said. “Those are actionable and we’re going to be holding these districts and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education accountable for these statutes, for these requirements. These things were not waived because we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”