The Baker administration has left school reopening plans up to local officials but the state education commissioner is now asking 16 districts to lay out plans for when they will bring students back into the classrooms, citing a “stark discrepancy” between their reopening models and local public health metrics.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley on Friday night wrote to officials in the districts that are offering remote-only instruction and have COVID-19 transmission rates that fall into the lowest risk categories in the state’s color-coded assessment system — 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 the student learning-time regulations that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education amended on an emergency basis in June to reflect the new realities of schooling during a pandemic and spell out procedures for when students cannot safely attend class. Those regulations called for districts, which had shuttered their school buildings in March and abruptly pivoted to remote learning, to develop a reopening plan that “prioritizes providing in-person instruction to all students in a safe environment.”
Decisions around how to best reopen schools have been fraught, and local officials are tasked with balancing risks of virus transmission, benefits of in-person learning time, 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 its color-coded measurement system, based on average daily COVID-19 incidence rates over a two-week period, in August, and it was quickly tied to the school reopening process.
The system assigns communities 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 residents, yellow between four and eight, and green for less 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 “expectation” for how schools should reopen — remotely, in-person or with a hybrid model — depending on their classification. Barring any extenuating circumstances, towns in green and unshaded communities were expected to offer full-time in-person instruction, the memo said. The department expected remote learning in red communities and hybrid for yellow.
“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 in his letter. “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 Massachusetts, 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 communities, including Dedham, Lynnfield and Nantucket, have pulled back or postponed their plans for in-person instruction after upticks in case counts. Those three communities all landed in the “red” category in the most recent Department of Public Health update, published last Wednesday.