With the start of the school year only days away, parent Marteena Morano-Singh circulated an online petition calling for Valley Stream School District 13 to provide students with a remote learning option. The petition was created in response to a letter issued by Superintendent Dr. Constance Evelyn on Aug. 16, notifying parents that the district would not provide remote learning at its three elementary schools.
Three days after the announcement, Morano-Singh posted the petition, which had 139 signatures as of Monday. The letter, sent by Evelyn, listed what health and learning practices would change, and which ones would stay the same:
Masks would be required indoors and on buses for everyone, but not outside.
Desk barriers would not be used.
No remote learning would be provided.
The letter further affirmed that the plans devised by the district fall squarely in line with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-backed guidelines laid out by the State Department of Education, which are aimed at “maximizing” safe in-person learning.
But Morano-Singh and dozens of other parents rallying behind the petition are concerned that moving to in-person learning might be premature.
“The delta variant is especially dangerous for young children and for immunocompromised or medically fragile individuals,” said Morano-Singh, who has a rising first-grader and a medically fragile member in her family. “District 13 is an elementary school district, and all of the children are under 12 years old, which means they cannot be vaccinated.”
Following DOE guidelines, school districts must be ready with plans to switch to online learning should the infection rate rise precipitously. But Morano-Singh believes parents should not have to wait for a sudden outbreak or an uptick in cases before the district decides to pivot to remote learning.
“An outbreak always starts with someone,” Morano-Singh said, “and a lot of families are not willing to let the district take that gamble for us.”
Trisha Brown, a parent who signed the petition, contends that having a remote learning option from the start could be a safeguard for everyone. “Removing a percentage of the teachers and students from the building, while obviously keeping them engaged and learning, is also better for those who are in the building,” Brown said. “More children at home means smaller class sizes, and schools are better able to better maintain social distance and give those students more individualized attention.”
While DOE guidelines encourage districts to return as many students back to school as possible, the department notes instances in which a remote learning option may provide a subset of students with a more suitable learning experience.
“Districts may work with students and families to offer remote options if it is deemed to be in the best educational interest of the student,” the guidelines state.
Students who cannot return to school safely because of “documented medical conditions” and those students who have “excelled” with remote learning where they would have otherwise “struggled” learning in person are two noteworthy examples.
“Neither education nor health care has ever been a one-size-fits all scenario, but now more so than ever it’s important to recognize the needs of individual families,” Brown said. “While some children need a classroom environment to do better, there are plenty of children who thrived last year in remote home environments.”
The onus would fall on the teachers and school administrators to make remote learning provisions for students with distinct health and learning needs.
“I know that remote learning is not as simple as just turning on the computer and having kids participate at home; really what you need is a separate classroom taught by a separate teacher, and the work is different, the grading is different, everything is different,” said Juliet Laor, a petition signee, educator and parent.
“It’s complex, but I feel like right now, it’s worth it because health is number one. Nobody wanted this, nobody chose this. This is an incredibly hard time for everybody.”
But as school districts rushed to finalize their reopening plans amid continuously evolving guidelines, it is unlikely that District 13 will stray from what it currently holds to be a board-approved, clearly defined back-to-school protocol for everyone.
Marteena, nevertheless, holds out hope that district officials will continue the remote learning protocols put in place last year for a second round this year.
“I haven’t seen anybody posit any reason why they couldn’t do it the way they did it last year where they had one remote class for every grade level,” Marteena said. “If the district does not want to do this, I’d like to know what the reasoning is behind that. They haven’t solicited any comments from parents.”
Superintendent Evelyn could not be reached for comment.