Baker grades school reopenings: “Fine start”

Boston Statehouse

Photo: State House News Service

BOSTON (SHNS) – The back-to-school season in Massachusetts “is off to a fine start,” Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday as his administration continued its multi-day push around the importance of in-person learning in communities where COVID-19 risks are classified as low.

Education officials from Quincy, which Baker said was one of the first school districts to reopen in-person this summer to serve students with disabilities and special needs, joined the governor for a State House press conference, as did Jeff Riley, commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“They’re an excellent model of how to safely and responsibly get back to school using DESE’s guidance,” Baker said of the Quincy schools. “Their faculty and their staff expertly tackled the safe reopening of their schools, overcoming challenges along the way, including two staff COVID-19 positive cases over the summer. Quincy school officials and staff should be commended for their effective response which ensured that in-person education was able to continue for hundreds of students with special needs.”

Baker said “some of the most potent and powerful and poignant mail” he’s received has come from parents of children with special needs, often with “a significant plea for the return to in-person education.”

The start of school has been emotional and complicated this fall, with districts juggling issues including the educational needs of students, student and teacher safety, and the ability to effectively implement new public health precautions in older buildings.

Decisions around reopening schools have largely been left to local officials, though the education department last month issued guidance on how it expected schools to proceed based on municipal-level COVID-19 cases and spread.

That August guidance said that “districts should look at multiple consecutive weekly COVID-19 reports to assess trends in order to inform any changes to their learning model,” and Baker and Riley have over the past week been stressing that any changes should be made based on three weeks’ worth of reports.

In Quincy, assistant superintendent Erin Perkins said the challenges of bringing students and staff back into school buildings for summer programs were made worth it by “the way children lit up as they entered the room.”

“The opportunity for a consistent routine focused on the individual needs of our students helped our students flourish,” she said. “The ability to socialize and communicate is a crucial part of our development, and one that does not always come easy to some of our students.”

Quincy, which is pursuing a reopening model involving a hybrid of in-person and remote learning this fall, is assigned the low-risk designation of green in the Department of Public Health’s color-coded COVID-19 transmission risk metric.

In recent days, Baker and Riley have been stressing that districts should be using data from the DPH assessment system to guide their approach to fall classes, and that students should be in school buildings if the data indicate it’s safe.

Riley on Friday sent a letter to 16 remote-only districts with low risk designations, asking them to send a timeline of when they plan to bring kids into classrooms. On Wednesday, Baker dialed up the pressure during a visit to Lowell, saying that science supports a return to school and that districts should base any decisions to pull back in-person learning on three weeks of data, rather than a single cluster.

The governor, who has for months emphasized the highly contagious nature of the virus, reiterated those points Thursday and defended Riley’s letter, which Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy blasted as an attempt “to bully communities into adopting more in-person learning.”

“I think the question the commissioner is asking here — which is if you are a low-risk district and you’ve been a low-risk district now for eight weeks, and you have no plans to return to in-person learning, when most people in the education and the public health and the pediatric community all believe that in person learning, especially for young kids is a critical part of their educational and social development, we want to know what your plan is to get back — I don’t think that’s bullying,” Baker said. “I think it’s a perfectly appropriate question to ask on behalf of the people of those communities and especially the kids.”

Riley gave the 16 districts 10 days to respond to his ask, and said they could face audits depending on their responses.

“We’re going to wait for the written responses and see what next steps are going to be from there,” Riley said Thursday.

He said low transmission rates in Massachusetts mean the medical community supports the idea of bringing students back, and that relying on multiple weeks of local-level data recognizes that different communities are experiencing different rates of spread.

“We know the possibility of a second spike exists, but while we are in a situation where a district has been green or gray for many weeks, we are asking districts to bring kids back to school in-person, or in a hybrid model,” Riley said. “It would be unfortunate if later in the year a district had to go remote because the virus spiked back up in their community and they recognize ‘Wow, we could have had our kids back on for a couple months, or maybe even six months.'”

Rep. Tami Gouveia, an Acton Democrat, responded to Riley’s comments on Twitter.

“The ‘unfortunate’ thing is berating schools into bringing kids and teachers back in-person too soon without providing the promised equitable levels of funding and then ignoring the likely effect that in-person learning could have in contributing to and/or exacerbating spikes,” she said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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