October 26, 2020

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Education commissioner leans on 16 remote-only school districts to spell out their plans to reopen classrooms

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The Baker administration has left school reopening plans up to local officials, but the state...

The Baker administration has left school reopening plans up to local officials, but the state education commissioner is asking 16 districts to lay out plans for when they will reopen classrooms, citing a “stark discrepancy” between their reopening models and the local public health metrics.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley on Friday wrote to officials in the districts that are offering remote-only instruction but have COVID-19 transmission rates in the lowest risk categories in the state’s assessment system. They are:

Amesbury, Bourne, Boxford, East Longmeadow, Gardner, Pittsfield, Provincetown, West Springfield, Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public, Hoosac Valley Regional, Gill-Montague, Mohawk Trail, Mohawk Trail/Hawlemont, Manchester Essex Regional, Belmont, and Watertown.

He asked for more information about their fall reopening plans and gave them 10 calendar days to respond.

“In light of the stark discrepancy between local public health data and your reopening plan, I am requesting a timeline by which you anticipate providing in-person instruction for the majority of your students including in-person instruction for vulnerable populations, such as students with disabilities, if these students have not already returned to in-person school,” Riley wrote.

“Please note that your response may trigger an audit to assess overall efforts to provide in-person instruction and to ensure your remote learning program is consistent with 603 CMR 27.08.”

The message refers to regulations the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education amended in June to reflect the new realities of the pandemic and spell out procedures for when students cannot safely attend classes. Those regulations called for the school districts, which had shuttered their buildings in March and abruptly pivoted to remote learning, to develop reopening plans that prioritize “providing in-person instruction to all students in a safe environment.”

Decisions about how to best reopen schools have been fraught, and local officials are tasked with dealing with the risks of virus transmission, the benefits of in-person learning, physical spaces that may lack ventilation or room for social distancing, strained budgets, working parents’ child-care needs, and the various concerns of teachers, students, and families.

The state launched a color-coded measurement system, based on average daily COVID-19 rates over a two-week period, in August, and it was quickly tied to the school reopening process.

The system assigns each municipality a color based on the number of new cases per 100,000 residents: red for an average daily case rate of more than eight per 100,000, yellow for four to eight, and green for fewer than four. Cities and towns with fewer than five cases in the two-week period, regardless of the rate, are in the “gray” or “unshaded” category.

The day that system was launched, Riley sent out a memo outlining the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s “expectation” for how schools should reopen — remotely, in-person, or with a hybrid model, depending on their classification. Barring any extenuating circumstances, green and unshaded locales were expected to offer full-time, in-person instruction. The department expected remote learning in red municipalities and a hybrid setup in the yellow areas.

“Given your community’s designation of green or gray, I am concerned that the school committee has voted to keep most students learning remotely for the start of the 2020-21 school year,” Riley wrote to the 16 school systems. “We have recommended remote learning only for those municipalities receiving a ‘red’ designation three weeks in a row on the color-coded metric unless the district identifies other extenuating circumstances that prevent in-person instruction.”

Riley’s letter noted the Baker administration’s reopening guidance has been endorsed by the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and said that the state, with a two-week COVID-19 test positivity rate of 0.9 percent, is “well below” the 5 percent threshold set in the World Health Organization’s standards for reopening.

Schools in a handful of places, including Dedham, Lynnfield and Nantucket, have pulled back or postponed their plans for in-person instruction after case counts ticked up. Those three all landed in the red category in the most recent Department of Public Health update, published Wednesday.

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