BOSTON - Parents engaged in the debate over reopening schools in their towns are now being enlisted in a broader, high-stakes fight between teachers' unions and school officials.
Jena Howard said she pulled her three children out of public schools in Woburn over the district's plans to start the academic year with a mix of remote and in-class learning. She doesn't consider herself a politically active person but said she couldn't stay on the sidelines with her children's education at stake.
"Remote learning has been a disaster, and I'm really worried my their social and mental well-being," she said. "Our kids have been sitting at home for six months. It's time for them to go back."
Howard joined a new group called Bring Kids Back MA, which is calling on school districts to prioritize full‐time, in‐person learning as schools reopen. In a recent letter to school administrators across Massachusetts, the group wrote that hybrid and remote learning "will not provide the quality of education our children need."
A majority of cities and towns have COVID-19 transmission rates low enough to allow for either a full return to school or a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, according to Gov. Charlie Baker. But teachers' unions have pushed back hard against a return to the classroom, calling for remote-only instruction amid concerns about social distancing, testing and ventilation in old school buildings.
Many of the state's 402 school districts are resuming classes this week, in line with the state's delay to the start of the 2020-21 school year.
About 70% of those are offering a mix of in-person and remote learning, while a lesser number will provide only remote instruction, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. A handful of districts are beginning the school year with in-person learning.
Bring Kids Back MA warns of the dangers of keeping kids connected to their teachers by computer, as they were when schools closed abruptly last spring.
"Our communities will trade one set of health concerns for a greater set of physical and mental health issues, perpetuated by increased screen time, inconsistent educational development, disrupted routines and lack of in-person interaction with peers and educators," the group wrote in its letter to administrators.
"The achievement gaps between our students, other states, and those who cannot afford private school, will increase even further."
Nearly 3,000 people have signed the group's online petition, which calls for a return of students to classrooms.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups backed by teachers' unions are enlisting parents who are skeptical of a full return to classrooms in the battle for public opinion.
The Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a coalition whose members include the Massachusetts Teachers Association and state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, recently held a press briefing with parents and students who are concerned about going back to school.
Luz Adriana Gamba, of Lowell, said her three children struggled last spring when schools were shut down to stop spread of the virus. She wants her kids to study from home this fall, but said schools need to do a better job of helping students learn remotely.
"One of my biggest fears is that our children are not going to have the necessary support they need for learning at home," she said.
Polls show parents are divided over how students should return to classes.
A June survey by MassINC Polling Group found more than 55% of parents prefer to see schools reopen with a hybrid schedule that includes in-class instruction, while 31% say remote learning should continue.
"Overall there is a lot of division among parents about how to reopen, but particularly so when it comes to their race," said Maeve Duggan, MassINC's research director.
"White and Asian parents were more comfortable returning, while Black and Latino parents were more hesitant," she said. "Even within those groups there were differences by gender, geography and income."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com