As the number of COVID cases rises across the city again, some parents want the DOE and other schools across the city to restore a remote learning option for fall. Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted, saying getting kids back to school in-person is essential to overcoming pandemic learning loss, and pointing to low transmission rates in city classrooms.

Adi Talwar

Katrice Bryson with her 12-year-old daughter. Bryson has two autoimmune diseases, prompting her to seek out remote school options for her daughter this year.

Katrice Bryson has a reputation as the kind of parent who won’t back down. Two years ago, a swarm of wasps made their home near her daughter’s Washington Heights’ school and stung multiple students. When the school didn’t act fast enough to remove the hive, Bryson called Pix 11 News. When her daughter was struggling in the classroom due to then-undiagnosed ADHD, Bryson left her second job and sought out additional tutoring to give her more individualized help. And when she learned her daughter was being bullied over her appearance and race, she marched straight to the classroom, where she ended up speaking to the group of third graders about her family’s Indigenous heritage.

But this summer, Bryson has felt powerless.

“I am paranoid. I am frustrated. And I’m clueless,” she said. Bryson is living with two autoimmune diseases, Lupus and Sjögren’s Syndrome. Her daughter, now 12, has asthma and a leaky heart valve, conditions that are currently mild but require constant monitoring.

So Bryson was relieved when she and her daughter got the COVID-19 vaccine. But as the Delta variant spread through New York City in recent months, the fear that gripped her at the height of the pandemic returned. Bryson recently discovered that her daughter is one of the oldest students in her 6th grade cohort—meaning the vast majority of classmates at her public charter school will be unvaccinated, since kids under 12 aren’t currently approved for the shot.

In the past, when her daughter has come home with a cold or other illness, Bryson hasn’t been able to avoid getting sick too, due to her autoimmune disorders. So with the COVID variants spreading, she doesn’t want to take any chances.

“Anytime she gets sick, I automatically know that I will catch it. And then the problem is, it takes me longer to fight it,” Bryson told a reporter recently over Zoom from the floor of her child’s bedroom—where she’d spent so much of the past year and a half. Her 2-year-old son napped beside her just off-screen, his little feet resting against her arm.

“I wanted her to stay on remote learning because of my condition and because of my son not being eligible for the vaccine,” she said. “But I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Approximately 500,000 of NYC’s public school students are aged 11 and under, too young to be vaccinated yet. In late May, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all public school students would be returning in-person this fall, citing the CDC’s relaxed social distancing guidelines for schools (from six feet to three) and the efficacy of the vaccine.

Bryson’s daughter attends a charter school, which like the city’s public schools, is not offering a remote option to all students this year (Bryson asked that City Limits withhold the name of her daughter’s school, for privacy reasons). Charter and private schools haven’t been subject to the same mandates as public schools, but some have been following the city’s lead on vaccine and testing requirements, as well as remote schooling.

But as the number of COVID cases rises across the city again and scores of summer schools have been forced to close because of positive cases, Bryson is now one of a growing number of parents calling on the DOE and other schools across the city to restore a remote learning option for fall 2021.

So far, de Blasio has been adamant about students returning to school in person, saying doing so is essential to meeting their educational and emotional needs after the disruption of the pandemic. He has pointed to the city’s safety measures for classrooms, which includes masking, contact tracing and in-school testing, as well as the fact that transmission rates in city schools last year was low, with a .4 percent positivity rate from October to December. The city in recent weeks has ramped up its campaign to encourage families get their kids vaccinated ahead of the new school year.

“We’re not going to remote as we had it previously, I’ve made that very clear,” the mayor said at a press briefing Thursday. “Everyone’s coming back to school.”

But families with immunocompromised members, like Bryson’s, say remote learning has become a matter of survival.

“You’re just basically telling us we have to sit up here and we have to pray every day to make sure that our kids don’t come down with the virus,” Bryson said.

Choosing to stay remote, even with pitfalls

Read our coverage of New York City’s Coronavirus crisis.

Suddenly converting 1.1 million public school students to remote schooling last year was an immense undertaking. The city struggled to distribute enough electronic devices even throughout fall 2020. Over 20,000 students living in temporary housing and nearly a third of the city’s Black and Hispanic residents didn’t have reliable internet access. Already overworked teachers dedicated even more of their time to navigate new online systems and revamp their lessons for remote learning.

Existing inequalities became even more pronounced: Students in schools with large Black and Hispanic populations were much less likely to interact with their teachers regularly over spring 2020, a strong predictor as to whether a student will graduate high school. Research indicated that schools in areas with higher poverty had more students experiencing learning loss, both academically and socially-emotionally. And while students of every race, grade and learning level felt the weight of a year of uncertainty and isolation, racially-marginalized and lower income students are more likely to live in areas of the city with high COVID death rates.

“Kids were finally starting to get used to something, and then all of a sudden, something would change,” said Annie Tan, a special needs teacher and spokesperson for the MORE caucus of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a social-justice oriented caucus of the union. “And I think that was the roughest thing: that students could not rely on a routine.”

Despite these disadvantages, 70 percent of New York City families chose to keep their kids in remote school last year over sending them back in person. Farah Despignes, president of the District 8 Community Education Council, highlighted that the majority of these families were Black, Hispanic, and Asian. 

“Why would people who could never trust the system, trust the system in the middle of a pandemic?” she said. 

Despignes organizes with The Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group, which has been holding rallies and roundtable discussions to push the city to offer a remote option this fall, including meeting with Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter. 

One of their virtual events in July featured Zoey Nieves, a student in the Bronx who was diagnosed with a form of pediatric cancer called Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma in 2018.  

“I’ve experienced a lot of trauma in the last year since my diagnosis,” Zoey said in a video call to the roundtable. “I’m scared to go into the school. My siblings can’t attend because of me and the risk they can bring into our house.”

The 12-year old has years of practice advocating for herself. Because of her illness, she missed two months of school while she was in and out of hospitals. She eventually had to have a tumor removed from her leg, which put her in a wheelchair for three months. 

“She had to learn to walk again,” said her mom, Maria Villalobos. The chemotherapy also wiped out Zoey’s childhood immunizations, which she’s been slowly rebuilding with spaced-out vaccines. 

As a medically-vulnerable student, Zoey is eligible for Home Instruction, a Department of Education plan in which an instructor visits students’ homes for an hour each school day. But for students Zoey’s age, the time with Home Instruction is a mere five hours a week, which pales in comparison to what she was receiving during remote school this past year 

“I don’t want that because now that the kids have been remotely learning for the past year and a half, they would get four, five hours on screen with the teacher every day. Why would I want to get rid of that to have someone come into my home for one hour?” Villabosos said.

In an emailed statement, Sarah Casanovas of the NYC Department of Education said, “As has been the case throughout the pandemic, all of our decisions are based on the health and safety of our students, and we will welcome back all students in September. Our home instruction program, which benefits a small number of children who are medically unable to attend school, will continue as it did pre-pandemic, and we will work with families to tailor the instruction based on the medical needs of each child.” 

‘We’re not going to be able to do this’

But Home Instruction is limited to exceptional cases, and having an immunocompromised family member doesn’t factor into a students’ eligibility for it. Zoey’s siblings, for example, don’t qualify for Home Instruction, despite their sister’s health risks.  

Kelsey (last name withheld for privacy reasons) has been scrambling for the past two weeks to  find another schooling option for her family. Kelsey’s 3-year old son has spent nearly a quarter of his life in the hospital and has had three invasive surgeries. He has Hypoplastic Right Heart Syndrome, a congenital heart defect in which the right side of the heart is underdeveloped. It makes breathing difficult, and his risk for illnesses is higher than a typical kid’s—last year, a common cold put him in the hospital for three nights. 

“My husband’s the one that watches the COVID numbers daily, and it was a few weeks of him saying ‘This isn’t good.’ But I so desperately wanted them to go to school and me to go to work and everything to be fine,” Kelsey said. “And then there was one day where I realized, ‘Okay, we’re not going to be able to do this.’”

Kelsey had been looking forward to returning full-time to her job as an occupational therapist, as she went part-time so she could be with the kids during remote school. The family even moved from Manhattan to Queens in January to save money, the floor of their small living room doubling as the kids’ classroom. Her son qualifies for Home Instruction for pre-k, but like Villabosos, Kelsey isn’t comfortable sending her older daughter to in-person school with the Delta variant causing a surge in pediatric COVID cases.

“I wanted to do a micro-school where there are only five or so kids, because then you’re exposed to less people, but they’re really expensive,” Kelsey said. “So that just wasn’t an option. And we can’t sit around and wait for a virtual option.”

That left them with one choice: homeschooling. The pandemic has driven more families to choose that route; the U.S. Census Bureau reported in March that the percentage of families homeschooling grew to 11 percent by September 2020, nearly doubling from six months prior. 

“I never planned on being a stay-at-home mom,” Kelsey said. “So I’m most nervous about making sure that we don’t fall apart, I guess. I don’t know how homeschool parents really do it every day.”

But in order to make it work, Kelsey has to fully quit her job. 

“It’s financially devastating, going down to a single income,” she said. “We’re managing, but it’s not in our best financial interests. But we just can’t risk the kids getting sick,” Kelsey said.

For her, a pediatric COVID vaccine is the only solution that will get her kids back into city public schools.

A growing call

An increasing but still small number of school districts across the country are newly planning to offer a remote option. In Round Rock, Texas, the school district recently decided to offer a centralized virtual public school as a temporary measure for kindergarten through 6th grade students, since they cannot be vaccinated yet.

“Based on what our community wants, and based on what’s going on right now with the Delta variant and the fact that our young students are not eligible for vaccination, we just felt like it was an option we had to offer our parents if we could at all,” said Jenny Caputo, a spokesperson for the district. Caputo noted the district doesn’t think this could be sustainable long-term.

Supporters in New York City say they understand what a huge undertaking and cost it would be to keep remote schooling, but the longer the city waits to offer it, the less prepared teachers and students will be. 

“That’s the narrative, that the remote option was so terrible, so we need in-person teaching,” said Annie Tan, the special needs teacher with MORE-UFT. “But you didn’t do anything to make remote learning better!”

Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group is circulating an online petition to restore remote public schooling that had more than 2,300 signatures at press time. City Councilman and Chair of the Education Committee Mark Treyger has tweeted in support of restoring a remote option. State Sen. Julia Salazar echoed his call on Friday. But according to DOE press secretary Casanovas, the city still has no plans to do so.

With less than a month left before school begins, Bryson was holding out hope that the city and her school would offer a remote option. True to form, she called up the Home Instruction office to see if her family’s situation warrants any accommodations. She called in to Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group roundtables to voice her opinion. She looked at potentially transferring her daughter to a different charter school, and sent emails and made calls to her daughter’s school officials, but to no avail.

But just last week, she finally secured a Zoom meeting with the superintendent of her daughter’s district. She made her case one final time—and the school offered her daughter a remote class option as a medical accommodation, a solution they’re implementing for families on a case-by-case basis for the school year. Bryson finally felt like she could breathe easy for the first time in months.

“Had I not gone that route and not said anything, then the worst outcome probably would have happened,” she said.

But like the DOE’s Home Instruction program, it’s a limited solution. As September approaches, Mayor de Blasio says the city is firm on requiring all students back in-person this fall. When it comes to their safety, some immunocompromised families feel like they’re on their own.

“For parents, whether it’s a public, charter or private school, if we don’t advocate for our children, they will fall through the cracks of the New York City educational system,” Bryson said.

This story was reported with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.