Education commissioner allowed emergency authority over learning models

Coronavirus Local Impact

BOSTON (WWLP/SHNS) – The Board of Education passed a plan that would give Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the ability to force districts back to in person learning.

Last month, Governor Baker set a goal to bring all students back into the classroom by April.

While data from the CDC shows that it is safe to do so, at Friday’s hearing parents and educators argued that it’s not.

“We know what’s best for our community, and Commissioner Riley does not. I would strongly urge you to reject this undemocratic proposal no matter who is the Commissioner,” said a Massachusetts teacher.

Since the emergency regulations passed, elementary school children would be back to in person learning 5 days a week starting on April 5th.

Many parents wanted this to be a collaborative process to bring students back gradually but Commissioner Riley argued that the mental health of thousands of students are at stake so they need to be back in the classroom.

“If adopted, they will result in more students returning to full-time, in-person learning with appropriate school-based mitigation measures in place, as COVID-19 health indicators continue to improve,” Education Commissioner Jeff Riley wrote in a memo to members of the Board of Education on Wednesday.

Under the proposed regulations, Riley would consult with state health officials and medical experts, so that students may safely attend classes in an in-person setting then, “after providing written notice to the Board, I may notify districts that they may no longer use hybrid or remote learning models to meet the minimum school year and structured learning time requirements set forth in the regulations,” according to the memo.

The amendments include a waiver process to address circumstances in which districts make a case for an incremental approach, and would permit the commissioner to advance a phased-in approach to distinguish between elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.

Under the rules, parents and guardians will have the option for the rest of this school year to select a remote learning model for their children, and learning hours for those students will continue to count for structured learning time.

According to Riley, he plans to pursue a graduated approach, with an initial focus on bringing all elementary school students back to in-person learning five days a week in April.

During the pandemic, state officials have largely deferred to local decision-making on remote, hybrid or in-person learning models. But with the state coming off of its second surge in virus cases and more of the population getting vaccinated, Gov. Charlie Baker is making a hard push to force in-person learning.

A public comment period is expected following Friday’s vote and Riley plans to bring the amendments back for final adoption at the board’s May meeting. The emergency regulations, if approved, will take effect immediately and be effective for three months, according to Riley, “because of the urgent need.”

Many schools in Massachusetts have been providing in-person instruction to students throughout the current academic year. The in-person learning push this week caused President Joe Biden on Tuesday and Baker on Wednesday to accelerate vaccine eligibility for teachers.

As of Feb. 12, nearly 80 percent of Massachusetts school districts were providing at least some in-person instruction to students through an in-person or hybrid model. But many larger urban school districts have been providing fully remote instruction for most or all of the school year, and Riley on Wednesday estimated that 300,000 students are enrolled in districts that are currently fully remote.

Baker announced Wednesday that teachers on March 11 will become eligible to try to get vaccine appointments.

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