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Why Not Offer a Remote Option for School?

At the outset of the pandemic last year, two of Ruth Horry’s three children got sick with Covid — one of them, just 5, frighteningly so, with a …

Why Not Offer a Remote Option for School?

At the outset of the pandemic last year, two of Ruth Horry’s three children got sick with Covid — one of them, just 5, frighteningly so, with a fever that raged for days and required hospitalization. “It got to the point where she was at 105 and shaking and we couldn’t even get in a cab,’’ Ms. Horry told me. “They wouldn’t take us. She was coughing and people were scared; this was a time when everyone was basically wearing garbage bags.”

When vaccines became available, Ms. Horry got her shot despite considerable anxiety. “When I went and got mine, I cried in the chair because I was so scared,’’ she said. Slow to follow up with her second, she eventually moved forward. Her older children, one in college and the other 15, were vaccinated as well but these events did not pass seamlessly either.

The father of Ms. Horry’s middle child, having succumbed to the fallacies sown by the internet, didn’t want their daughter vaccinated and got angry. This was just another example of what she was seeing throughout Brownsville in Brooklyn, where she lived and worked: families in conflict over vastly different approaches to the pandemic in a place where the devastation wreaked by Covid was matched only by the fear and mistrust surrounding efforts to curb and prevent it.

Like other low-income communities of color in New York, Brownsville has a low rate of vaccination, one of the lowest in the city. In July, the city introduced various incentives and continued to publicize others, in what immediately seemed liked an ill-fated effort at reversing that course — incentives that included $100 prepaid debit cards, ferry passes and membership to the Public Theater. (Terrified of the unknown? How about a few hours of Sam Shepard? For free!)

The rates of those fully vaccinated ticked up marginally in Brownsville and other demographically similar neighborhoods but still stand at only around 40 percent — comparable to the rates in places like Idaho and West Virginia. When I spoke with community leaders in Brownsville early in the summer, they were put off by the condescension of what felt like exercises in gimmicky expedience, predicting they would fail. A study by the Boston University School of Medicine that looked at the efficacy of Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery campaign found that, in fact, money held little sway. Deploying celebrity does not seem to significantly move the dial either. On a recent afternoon, Charles Barkley led a vaccination drive at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., at which approximately 100 people received shots.

All along, public health officials in New York and other cities have professed the mantra of engaging those deeply rooted in communities to convince the skeptical that the vaccine is safe. But what if those leaders themselves are among the doubters? As both an employee of United for Brownsville and a volunteer for the organization, a cooperative that connects families in the community to the services they need, Ms. Horry has exhausted herself trying to get resisters to come around. Many members of the organization’s family advisory board, on which she serves, are themselves unvaccinated, she told me.

“I am African-American — I know fear, I have it,’’ she said. “I saw the freezer trucks. I stood next to the freezer trucks. And I’ve had people say to me that the trucks were a myth,’’ Ms. Horry added, referring to the mobile morgues that became one of the darkest symbols of the pandemic’s early phase. “I’m very passionate. I can change people’s minds. I can at least make you agree to disagree. I’m not a dancer. I’m not a singer. But I’m smart and I’m good with words, and now I’m lost for words.”

She has listened as people have told her that they will quit their jobs if their bosses mandate the vaccine. “I know that there are teenagers who want to get it, but their parents don’t want them to,” she said. “They’re on TikTok and they’re seeing people they trust telling them to get it.”

All of these tensions have heightened around the imminent return to school. Mayor Bill de Blasio has remained firm that the city will not offer a remote option this year, even though plenty of parents of young children not yet eligible for vaccination would like to see one. Perhaps unpredictably, Success Academy, the charter network not known for its will to appease, is offering a remote option through October. Some parents are looking to leave the public education system entirely and home-school their children.

Even parents of immunized teenagers worry about the current environment. One mother, Dionne Grayman, who runs a women’s health organization in Brownsville, told me that she was concerned about her daughter’s commute from Brownsville to LaGuardia High School on the Upper West Side, not because she was afraid of classroom transmission but because the long subway ride during rush hour posed sufficient risk, she felt, both as an incubator of Covid and a space of rising crime.

Given that it may be impossible to convince some significant faction of those opposed to vaccination to get their shots, and given the increasing likelihood of catastrophic weather disrupting ordinary life, it would make sense for municipal school systems to refine remote learning to the highest standards, so that it could be deployed when it was needed, not as a crutch but rather as a kind of emergency vehicle.

Children obviously learn better in physical classrooms, but they learn absolutely nothing if they’re not showing up at all. And as one Brownsville parent predicted, the city could easily see an increase in educational neglect cases in the office of child protective services when parents simply stop sending their kids to school. According to Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, a neuroscientist and public school parent who has been critical of the Department of Education’s handling of Covid, there is already a boycott planned for the first day of school.

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