Parents keep pressing DESE for virtual option

BOSTON — Moms and dads from across the state gathered for a virtual press conference Monday, hoping to pressure the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE] to restore a virtual-learning option for parents leery of COVID.

Last winter, DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley began the process that eventually led to the full, in-person learning that commenced this fall. Between then and now, the Delta variant appeared, sparking a mini-wave of infections in Massachusetts, particularly among the unvaccinated – the largest group of which gather in elementary schools five days a week.

That frightens parents of children with preexisting conditions.

“I’m the mother of a 5-year-old boy who’s asthmatic,” said a Worcester mom at the press conference. “I feel really vulnerable as my son was asked to report to a kindergarten school in our community. But there’s no HVAC system.”

Her son did not report for kindergarten at that school, she said. Instead, she’s home-schooling him.

A Boston mom said she’s already been contacted by a truancy officer for keeping her three children out of school but said she’s standing her ground.

“I strongly believe that if I send my children to school, I’m sending them to their deaths,” she said. “It’s a death sentence.”

A mom from Rehoboth reported she felt compelled to keep her son out of school again this year because the vaccination rate in her town is low.

“While I worry about his mental health because he hasn’t been in school since March of 2020, his physical health is a bigger concern at this moment,” she said.

“Schools, in my opinion, are relatively safe, as long as all staff and children are wearing masks,” said Dr. Katrina Byrd, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence.

In fact, infection rates in Massachusetts schools have remained at low levels since the state began keeping track, reaching a high point of .17% in mid-April of this year. In its first report of the new academic year, DESE reported 1,230 cases of COVID in students. That’s an infection rate of .13%.

Byrd said it’s understandable why parents want to keep their children from getting COVID, and there’s a good reason to avoid it. Even if symptoms of the infection are mild, something severe can pop up down the road: MIS-C.

“Two to eight weeks later they’re being hospitalized because they’re sick with severe fever, low blood pressure; sometimes they’re so sick they need to be on a ventilator,” Byrd said. “And we can’t predict which child that is going to happen to.”

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