Anxious NYC parents plead for remote school option for kids with medically vulnerable family

Posted on • Reading Time: 3 min read

This article was published on New York Daily News by Michael Elsen-Rooney on September 12, 2021.

Queens mom Rasheedah Pierce knows first-hand the devastation that can follow when a contagious respiratory virus sneaks into a home with a medically vulnerable child.

Five years ago, her 2-year-old son Kenneth — one of two twins who suffered significant health challenges after being born more than two months premature — caught parainfluenza from a family member and wound up on a ventilator. He died before his third birthday.

The memory is haunting Pierce all over again as the start of classes on Monday looms for her two elementary school children.

Seven-year-old Ella, Kenneth’s surviving twin, who still battles ailments including chronic lung disease and a compromised immune system stemming from her premature birth, will likely qualify for the Education Department’s home instruction option for kids with medical conditions.

But her younger sister Erin, who is healthy, will be required to attend in-person classes under city rules — raising for Pierce the terrifying prospect that her younger daughter could catch the virus in school and infect Ella, who is still too young to get vaccinated.

“We’re afraid for her life, honestly,” Pierce said. “We’ve lost a twin. We’ve gone through this a couple years ago, and here we are with no options.”

Families across the city have demanded a broader remote option given the spike in COVID-19 cases driven by the spread of the more contagious Delta variant. But the issue is particularly pressing for families like Pierce’s, where one member is medically vulnerable.

The DOE’s program for “medically necessary instruction” allows students with qualifying ailments to stay home this school year, and get home visits from a physical teacher or one-on-one and small group instruction online.

The program, however, is not open to students with family members who are at higher risk from COVID-19.

DOE officials have argued that data collected last year found minimal COVID-19 spread in school. The study, conducted last fall, found that only .5% of the roughly 36,000 students potentially exposed to a COVID-19 case at school eventually tested positive — a sign that transmission within classrooms was low.

Officials have also argued that virus rates in schools remained similar to or lower than those in the city as a whole. City officials added that the spread of vaccines, including through a vaccination mandate for staff, add another layer of safety.

“Our multi-layered approach to safety has made schools among the safest places to be in the city, and we will work with each family to ensure that their children safely return to school,” said DOE spokeswoman Sarah Casasnovas.

But Pierce finds little comfort in those assurances. She says the city’s assessments of COVID-19 spread were made during a time when only a fraction of students were attending in-person school and kids had ample room to spread out.

Now, Pierce says she worries her younger daughter Erin is poised to “go to a class of 25-30 children … with the Delta variant.”

And while some families may be at equal or higher COVID risk outside school than inside it, Pierce said her daughters have lived “in a bubble to a degree…they don’t even have people touching them outside of their parents and grandparents.”

It’s not only public school students facing the remote schooling predicament.

Yanni Tournas, the father of an elementary-schooler at Academy of the City Charter School in Queens, asked school officials if his son could continue remote learning this year because Tournas takes medication for Multiple Sclerosis that suppresses his immune system. He’s built up no antibodies to COVID-19 even after getting vaccinated.

“I have no protection,” he said.

School officials wrote in a Friday email reviewed by the Daily News that the charter school’s authorizer said “schools do not legally have the option to create their own remote learning program.” It wasn’t immediately clear what legal restrictions school officials were referring to. Other city charter networks, including Success Academy, are offering temporary remote options.

Officials at Academy of the City couldn’t be reached Friday.

For public school parents like Pierce, it’s not only the limited eligibility for the city’s home instruction program that’s raising concerns.

The Queens mom said she’s worried that the academic support offered in home instruction won’t meet Ella’s learning needs. Limited daily visits from an in-person or virtual teacher won’t replace the full-day remote instruction that Ella, who receives special education services, got last year, Pierce said.

The combination of health and academic concerns has left the family reeling just days before school is supposed to resume.

“We’re the day before school is starting,” Pierce said, “and I don’t know what to do.”