With a 26-year-old son living at home — an organ transplant recipient who is currently battling lymphatic cancer — Ian Yeoh and Lezah Hancock-Yeoh are vigilant about protecting him from COVID-19.
That's why they asked their school district in Fairfield, Connecticut, to allow his 16-year-old brother to take classes online, just like he did last year during the height of the pandemic.
“The doctors are very adamant. When they blew us away with the diagnosis of Mitchell’s cancer, they also said on the same day, ‘Your other son, Mason, he can’t go back to school,’" Lezah Hancock-Yeoh said.
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
While the family is hoping for a medical exemption, the school system has denied the request for a continuation of remote learning. It comes as educators, politicians and parents are eager to get as many students as possible back into the classroom after what’s been described as a “lost year” for many young people. Some families say school systems are not being flexible enough.
Connecticut is among states taking a harder line. Several other states are expanding virtual offerings in part to accommodate families with concerns about the virus.
A state law in Connecticut prohibits districts from providing a long-term remote learning option instead of in-person instruction, Fairfield Superintendent of Schools Mike Cummings said.
“We think there’s no substitute for teachers being with their students, both in terms of academic learning and their social emotional learning needs, and we’re prioritizing that and really trying to make that our focus this year," explained Nathan Quesnel, a superintendent of schools in East Hartford. In his district, virtual learning will be available short-term to accommodate individual students, classrooms or schools that need to quarantine or if there's a surge in cases.
“Families have to make choices,” he said. “Some families have chosen to homeschool as an option. That's certainly not something we recommend, that's certainly not something we're promoting, but that is an option for families.”
Connecticut attorney Andrew Feinstein, who represents an immunocompromised mother from Fairfield who is challenging her town's denial of remote learning for her child to the state Department of Education, said “the state has thoroughly abdicated its responsibility” when it comes to these families. Feinstein said the state released “entirely ambiguous statements” which he contends have led some superintendents to wrongly believe they can't offer them remote learning.
“When I talk to folks at the state Department of Education, they tell me, ‘No, no, no, this is something that local districts can do,'” he said. “They refuse to put in writing essentially what they’re telling me.”
Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said while districts are unable to offer remote learning for a full 180-day school year, the rules for short-term remote learning are unclear.
“It is up to the individual district where they will go with that. But it is very confusing because, how long are we talking here? Are we talking a week or two weeks or a month of remote instruction? Because the legislature has said not a separate track this year,” she said.
State Department of Education guidance provided to schools says districts are “not authorized by legislation to provide a remote learning program except for high school students starting in the 2022-2023 school year,” with several exceptions. Those include the need to quarantine individual students, classes and schools and in “rare and individualized circumstances, for students with elevated risks from COVID-19 exposure due to co-habiting family members with documented vulnerability to COVID-19.”
Eric Scoville, the department's spokesperson, said the agency is not aware of a single school district that has asked to provide “school or district-wide remote learning" so far.
State Sen. Doug McCrory, co-chair of General Assembly’s Education Committee, acknowledged there isn’t a statewide virtual learning policy for students with family members at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. But he said school districts should be working on a “case-by-case basis” to help these families.
“I don’t know how large the population is, but I think there’s resources available because of the CARES Act and all the other funding that we got from the federal government to make sure that child is properly educated,” he said.
On Thursday, Charlene Russell-Tucker, Gov. Ned Lamont's newly nominated education commissioner, said districts are being encouraged to work with families individually. She said some are providing these students tutors and “some kind of asynchronous learning," but she acknowledged they're not required to do so. Lamont said districts can also access online learning modules the state is making available, but he stressed that “if you can, go to class.”
Connecticut isn't alone in this debate. New York City has no plans to offer a fully remote learning option, to the dismay of some teachers and parents who’ve begun petition campaigns.
Katrice Bryson, a single mother in Manhattan, has two autoimmune diseases and suffers from other medical conditions as well. While she understands the desire to have students return to the classroom, Bryson said a one-size-fits-all approach is not the answer.
“The politicians are not taking into account kids’ living situations, because every student’s living situation is unique,” she said. “You have students who live in multigenerational households. You have students who live with relatives who are at high risk.”
Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for the city’s public schools, said the department’s “multi-layered approach to safety has made schools among the safest places to be in New York City” and students “cannot lose another year of in-person learning.”
Elizabeth Vienneau and her husband Roger Schulman specifically chose Fairfield, Connecticut, for its school system when they moved from Los Angeles three years ago. Vienneau, who has Type 1 diabetes and relies on an insulin pump, said she’s dismayed the district left them with no options other than homeschooling their daughter or signing up for some expensive, private, online high school.
“The thing that hurts the most is that we came here for these teachers and this community and we pay our taxes for those things and support and volunteer in the community for those things,” Schulman said. “It doesn’t make sense to us. She’s going to be sitting in a room with some online school based in Texas, surrounded by one of the country’s best public school systems. Why?”