After a year and a half at home, some parents don’t want their kids returning to run-down schools

New Jersey’s decision to end virtual teaching prompts families to question whether their schools were ever safe for children

The New Jersey governor’s recent decision that all public schools would return this fall to in-person classes – without a virtual option – sent parent Tatiana Martin scrambling.

Martin, of Jersey City, New Jersey, first went to her boss: Could she continue to work remotely next year, if she was able to cobble together a virtual arrangement for her 10-year-old son Theo?

Then she took to Google, researching the virtual home-school options in her state, trying to suss out the rules and regulations with which she would have to comply.

Martin’s concerns about in-person schooling are threefold. Based on his age, her son is not eligible to receive a vaccine, and without one, she is skeptical that schools are capable of keeping him safe from COVID-19. Then there’s the fact that her son’s school building is run-down, old, poorly ventilated and in constant need of repairs. Jersey City Public Schools, which only opened for in-person learning at the end of April, long after many other districts, seemed unsafe for learning even before the pandemic.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, virtual learning has worked for her son, who has autism and ADHD.

“My kid did better than he had before,” said Martin, who works as a data entry specialist at a company that manufactures glass. “Most of the school year he’s been on honor roll. He hasn’t had that before.”

Martin is one of the many parents and teachers around the country who don’t want their kids to return to the classroom this fall, whether for academic or medical reasons. But in states such as New Jersey, one of at least nine states around the country that have mandated in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year, parents and teachers who were hoping to continue on the distance-learning track are on their own.

A street view of the Jersey City Board of Education building. Jersey City, New Jersey, parent Tatiana Martin said she heard from a school board member that there are other parents like her who are wary of sending their child back to school for in-person classes.

Now, parents like Martin say they’re starting to reconsider their expectations of schools after a year and a half at home. These parents said they feel newly empowered to fight against the failures they once accepted as inevitable. Virtual learning gave them a sense of options outside the traditional public school model. They are using Gov. Phil Murphy’s May decision, and the inevitability of in-person schooling, to mobilize against the poor conditions in some of the state’s lower-income schools.

“It’s stuff that we’ve known has needed to be changed for a while,” said Martin. “I feel like now a lot more parents are more involved, especially as the year went on.”

A national survey of parents in May found that 12% were hesitant to send their child back to school in person, though that proportion may have since dropped. Families of color have been particularly hesitant, as Black and Latino communities were often hardest hit by the pandemic and may have already been less trustful of school leadership after decades of seeing their needs disregarded. (The population of Jersey City is 21% Black and 29% Latino.)

“We know that we can get back fully in person, safely, with the right protocols in place,” Murphy said during his May announcement. In response to an inquiry from The Hechinger Report, the New Jersey Department of Education said it has not conducted any surveys to see how many families would be interested in continuing virtually. A spokesperson also noted that “state law would need to be amended to allow for all-day/schoolwide remote instruction,” outside of limited circumstances.

Teachers union leaders have said they have received increased community support for some of the battles they have long fought.

“People now are really fed up. When you’re away from something for that long, and you’re thrust back into it when you’re not specifically ready yet, I think folks are looking at it in a whole different light,” said John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association, a local teachers union that is currently fighting its district to get further repairs for run-down school buildings.

Martin has spoken up about her concerns during virtual school board meetings and in the comments section of the school district’s Facebook page. This type of involvement is new for her — previously, her work schedule didn’t allow her to make in-person school board meetings. She knows she’s not alone in her efforts: A school board member recently told her that she has heard from several parents in Martin’s position and Martin has seen other parents speaking up with similar concerns. But she worries that the loud voices supporting in-person school will drown out the whispers of opposition.

“People now are really fed up. When you’re away from something for that long, and you’re thrust back into it when you’re not specifically ready yet, I think folks are looking at it in a whole different light.”

John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association

“I’ve been on some message boards where some parents have said, you know, it took some adjusting, but my kid flourished. I feel like the voices of those parents haven’t been heard as much as the parents who were fighting and throwing fits to have schools reopen,” she said.

For her son, who is sensitive to loud noises — a common symptom of autism — virtual schooling has been a lifeline. During virtual school, teachers have been able to mute students who are being noisy or disruptive, which allowed him to focus better. Learning virtually has been a comfort for a child who struggles with transitions: He’s no longer forced to rush out the door in the morning or travel to class in rowdy hallways.

His experience has been uncommon. Many other students with disabilities have struggled throughout the pandemic after being thrust from their routine and cut off from necessary support services. But for Martin, it’s been thrilling to see her son’s new success.

She’s also found remote learning less logistically challenging. Her grandmother, who previously helped her with child care, died a few months ago. For three years, she had watched Theo after school — he had been removed from the free extended day program at his school because staff didn’t know how to manage his disability. If Theo went back to in-person school, Martin would have to pay for a private provider to fill the gap, taking a chunk she can’t afford to lose out of her paycheck.

The Jersey City Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment.

About 20 miles away in Paterson, teachers and parents are arguing that school buildings are unsafe to return to next year — and had been unsafe, even before the coronavirus pandemic.

These teachers returned for in-person school in early June with a small group of students, despite a protracted legal battle with the district administration over safety precautions. Teachers say they returned to find buildings without the updates district leadership had promised — heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems were installed incorrectly; windows were stuck shut.

Since then, the union and individual teachers have been sharing photos and videos on social media of dead rats, empty soap dispensers, rodent droppings and faucets leaking brown water. The teachers haven’t argued for a return to remote learning, but are demanding that the district take care of these issues before students return in the fall.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks about local schools during a news conference in Trenton, New Jersey, on March 16, 2020.

David “Dee” Delgado/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“A lot of other districts opened quicker because they were better prepared and their schools were in better condition,” said Lakresha Hodge, a fourth grade teacher who has taught in Paterson for 21 years. “Our district has had many years of having schools in dire need of repair.”

District spokesperson Paul Brubaker disputes these characterizations. With the help of nearly $20 million in federal funds, the district has outfitted classrooms with partitions to separate kids from classmates, air purifiers, air scrubbers and disinfectant sprays. Universal masking and social distancing are required, and staff is being asked to keep a window in their classrooms open to increase airflow.

In an email, Brubaker denied the union’s assertions that the district’s buildings are not equipped to prevent COVID-19 infections, and chastised the union for its approach to addressing problems. “The PEA leadership does not notify the district of its concerns but instead puts photos in social media and in press releases to the media.”

Some parents, discovering that their children’s respiratory issues cleared up when they stayed home during the pandemic, have joined the PEA’s calls for further repairs. Jillian Farrad, a mother of two, is desperately searching for other options so her kids don’t have to return to the buildings. She opted to keep them home at the end of the year, even though her two children, who have autism, are in urgent need of in-person speech therapy.

“My son has a weakened immune system,” said Farrad, who is a stay-at-home mom and secretary at a nonprofit she runs with her husband. “He was always getting sick. But as soon as he got out of school, he stopped getting sick. I knew then there was an issue with circulation and ventilation in his school — that, combined with COVID, is going to make it worse.”

Brubaker encourages Farrad and similarly situated parents to “contact their school principal to make sure all necessary accommodations are provided to ensure her child is afforded a safe learning environment.”

But Farrad doesn’t trust the district. She already has too much evidence that the school her 7-year-old son attended was bad for him. He regularly had to use a nebulizer and suffered from bronchial problems such as seasonal allergies and asthma. He once came home with bedbugs. During warm months, he would leave school beet red, his face flushed as if he had just gone for a run, and sweating. Not anymore.

“[My kids] not being in school led me to want better things for my children,” said Farrad. “I think a lot of parents are feeling the same way I am.”

Farrad’s family doesn’t want to move, so she’s looking into programs that allow families to enroll in public schools outside their district. She’s also exploring private schools. If given the option, she would definitely keep her kids in virtual classes, though managing their remote learning the last 16 months has been “a nightmare.”

She’s eyeing a run for the school board and has been in contact with the leaders of the local teachers union, who said that, like the kids, they are suddenly much healthier after time spent away from the classroom.

Indeed, after just one day in her classroom, Hodge came home with a sore throat. There’s no air conditioning in her building, and windows only open a few inches — the heat and dust make it hard to breathe.

“COVID uncovered a lot of systemic issues,” said Hodge. “Just because our students have a particular ZIP code doesn’t mean they don’t deserve healthy schools.” In mid-June, the Paterson Education Association took a no-confidence vote against the district’s superintendent, mostly over concerns about her handling of safety issues. (Brubaker said the vote “has absolutely no bearing on the leadership and the policies set by the board of education,” and noted that the board of education members had spoken in defense of the superintendent.)

Nearby, in Jersey City, Martin is now bracing for the time that she’ll be forced to send her child back to in-person school, for lack of other realistic options.

The virtual programs she’s found focus too much on self-directed learning, which isn’t appropriate for her child, and the private programs are unaffordable.

“As of right now, it looks like we’re not going to have much a choice,” she said.

Liner Notes

This story about in-person school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.