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As masks become optional, some parents want remote learning options

Ava Tortorella's classroom space is a little different than her peers thanks to online learning options.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Ava Tortorella's classroom space is a little different from that of her peers since she left traditional school and enrolled in a virtual academy.

Ava Tortorella is a fifth-grade student from Middletown. She goes to class, works on school projects and talks to her friends every day. And she does all of this in the safety of her home during the ongoing pandemic.

“I understand that I’m not the only one scared of the pandemic, because so are my parents. So they kept me home. And I agreed all along with that,” she said.

After her favorite class — history — she’ll do some extra reading or watch documentaries with her parents. By switching to remote, Ava said she’s learning again.

“I felt better, less stressed, happier and really, really creative,” she said.

State education officials released remote learning standards last month that would make it possible for high school students to opt in for online school starting this summer, but parents of younger kids like Ava say they feel left out.

During the surge in omicron variant cases, Ava’s school allowed her to go temporarily remote because she felt unsafe attending in-person classes. As cases continued to rise, Ava’s parents decided that wasn’t enough. They pulled her out of public school and enrolled her in an accredited virtual school for the rest of the school year.

Ava said she prefers remote learning because she doesn’t have to worry about the pushback she got from classmates when it comes to wearing masks.

“I don’t want to be in an environment like that where students just won’t keep their masks up, and if I ask, they’ll put it on and take it off. It’s really annoying and concerning and scary because it’s not just the best for them, it’s the best for me and them, and everyone else.”

Spaces outside Ava's bedroom have been tweaked to further enrich her education, like this off-kitchen garden that she helps care for.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Ava’s parents helped her set up an off-kitchen garden to help keep her stress low while continuing hands-on education.

Ava’s dad, Drew Tortorella, said trying to work out a remote learning plan with the school district was a frustrating process. Amid all the uncertainties, he said his priority was to make sure Ava gets an education without additional stress. He also recognized that he has the ability to help his daughter as he enters semi-retirement, while other families may not have that option for their children.

“I think it should be a parent’s choice to choose how the child goes to school ... and remote educating a child as long as it’s done right and still get them the correct socialization, there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said.

Bianca Noronas in Hartford echoed similar experiences. She kept her second-grader home for a week in January because of rising COVID cases. Despite her anxieties, her daughter had to return to in-person classes to avoid becoming truant. That’s because the state doesn’t count remote learning as a school day, and the state considers any student who has four unexcused absences in a month or 10 unexcused absences in one school year as truant.

Noronas said she understands it’s not the school’s fault that remote learning is not recognized for public elementary school students by the state, but she says administrators have been unhelpful.

“I expressed my concerns and they said, ‘Well, if you don’t want problems, you can always take out your daughter for a few weeks then re-enroll her again.’ And I said, my daughter is in a magnate school. I can’t make that [decision] because if I take her out of the school, she’s going to lose her seat,” she said.

Hartford Public School officials say they saw a lower attendance rate with remote learning, but they did not release data to CT Public.

“Last year, when there was hybrid learning, we recognized that our remote learners had a higher rate of truancy than our in person learners,” said Hartford Public Schools spokesperson Jesse Sugarman. “While we do not have exact numbers on the families/students that are absent this year because of the state’s policy on remote learning, we do know that fear of COVID is one of the leading indicators of truancy.”

The state Department of Children and Families, which would handle reports of truancy, said it didn’t experience a high number of reports on families who refused to send their child to school due to a preference to remote learning.

“Only in those circumstances where a school-aged child has excessive absences from school through the intent or neglect of the parent or caregiver would a referral to our Department be warranted,” said Vannessa Dorantes, commissioner for the Department of Children and Families.

Still, COVID-cautious parents now have another worry. The statewide school mask mandate was lifted at the end of February, allowing local districts to make mandate decisions.

Noronas said it adds to the anxiety during the pandemic.

“If you don’t give the opportunity to see what the incoming months brings, you could be in the middle of a new variant, and children without masks in the schools could bring many health problems and more deaths,” she said.

Noronas said it feels like the state is only listening to parents who want their children unmasked. To stay safe, she said her family will continue to wear masks until cases are close to zero.

Local school boards will be able to offer a remote learning option for high schoolers starting July 1 under current state law, but that option is still a long way off for elementary school students.

State education officials have said they will continue to review the remote learning standards as schools implement the plan and consider other grade levels.

The state is also looking into the potential of establishing a statewide K-12 virtual school. Lawmakers are expected to review a proposal next July. In the meantime, many students will stay in school with optional mask rules.

Catherine is the Host of Connecticut Public’s morning talk show and podcast, Where We Live. Catherine and the WWL team focus on going beyond the headlines to bring in meaningful conversations that put Connecticut in context.

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