The Biden administration is set on K-8 schools reopening in the next few months, confident that vaccinations and strict guidelines will prevent coronavirus outbreaks. But as students return to classrooms that can’t entirely be guaranteed COVID-free, immunocompromised families are worried that their children will be left behind without a definitive alternative.
“We catch literally every virus,” said Jennifer of South Windsor, who asked that her last name not be used. “We’re already behind the ball because health problems make life difficult.”
Jennifer has a heart condition that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says puts her at increased risk of severe illness if she contracts COVID-19. Her children also have health problems. They’ve opted to do full-time distance learning, and Jennifer is hoping that Connecticut will have a concrete public school plan aimed at all-virtual learners for the fall.
“There’s been so much negative press on distance learning, but I think there could be an avenue to look at for families like ours that is positive and is good,” she said.
Connecticut Education Commissioner Dr. Miguel Cardona — President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education — fully supports a return to in-person instruction, and Gov. Ned Lamont has indicated he is eager for it here. The federal government is depending on states to adopt stringent precautions in conjunction with studies that have shown that children generally transmit COVID-19 less than adults.
The CDC’s new school reopening guidelines include a provision that students at increased risk of severe illness or who live with people at increased risk “should be given the option of virtual instruction regardless of the mode of learning offered.”
Such an alternative, whatever form it takes, could be coming. During a press briefing on Tuesday, Gov. Lamont expressed his support for an option to allow immunocompromised students and families to remain home.
“I think it makes all the sense in the world, whether we need to do that by mandate or the districts decide to do it themselves,” Lamont said. “More broadly, I think you’re gonna find virtual learning is gonna be a big part, a complement, to in-person learning forever in this state and this country.”
However, as of now, that is just talk. There is no policy or proposal under consideration to address whether Connecticut will require or help municipalities provide public virtual learning, at an accredited level, for students whose health would make them need to stay at home indefinitely. The state Department of Education and the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee did not respond to requests for comment.
Jennifer said that she’s “eternally” grateful to the district for allowing her children to learn entirely from home so far. Staff have “leapt through the fire” to make virtual learning possible, she said. But with teachers stretched thin and focusing on in-person students, Jennifer feels like her children aren’t getting the same education as their healthier peers.
“It’s not a program dedicated to the distanced learners,” Jennifer said. “My kids are kind of just passive participants in schools. It’s not an equal education. It’s giving up so many positives.”
It’s also a matter of life and death. In another South Windsor family, which asked us not to use their name, if the son goes to school in person, he runs the risk of bringing the coronavirus home to his mother, who is near the fourth stage of cancer.
“My wife’s oncologist called me and said, ‘If you or your son go out and God forbid you bring something, you and your son will survive, but she’s not going to survive, I can guarantee that,’” his father said.
The family goes to extreme lengths to stay safe, including disinfecting groceries multiple times. The father said he even wraps himself in plastic and changes out of his clothing immediately on the rare occasions that he goes out. His son’s return to the classroom would put them in great danger.
“The virus is not going away,” the father said. “I have no problem with the school system and the town is a very good town. But I do not agree with this policy. We don’t even get those emails anymore how many kids and teachers are [testing] positive.”
“I was not expecting this from Biden’s administration,” he added. “I supported his campaign so hard, and as soon as he comes in, he’s no better than the other one. For me, at least.”
A long-term accredited public virtual school option — the hope for Connecticut’s immunocompromised families — would allow high-risk children or children who live with high-risk individuals to have an engaging program dedicated to them and their preferred modality. It would also give teachers who want to continue working remotely the option to do so.
Other states have had accredited public virtual school options in place even before the pandemic. Connections Academy, for example, is an online, tuition-free public school program based in Maryland whose curriculum has been adopted by local schools in more than 20 states. Florida has had the Florida Virtual School for over 22 years.
Connections Academy spokesperson Scott Overland said that while they currently don’t support a public virtual option in Connecticut, they are “always looking for new partner schools and would be excited to explore how we can bring our 20 years of experience to help families in the Nutmeg State.”
If Connecticut doesn’t adopt a virtual public option, vulnerable families would need to buy into a private one. Connections Academy offers Pearson Online Academy in Connecticut. Tuition costs as much as nearly $7,000 per year. To those whose health already prevents them from working regular hours, that’s more than likely an unaffordable alternative.
Lamont’s apparent support for a virtual public option struck optimism in those like Jennifer. Studying at home gave one of her daughters perfect attendance for the first time in her life. Jennifer believes a formalized virtual program dedicated to children like hers would be beneficial and equitable.
“Looking forward, I think this is the natural next step for the minority of folks that still have to distance as opposed to the majority who will be able to get back out,” Jennifer said.
“I feel like this doesn’t need to be a fight. I think this is something that’s good,” she continued.