Riley Goal: In-person education for elementary students in Massachusetts by April

Boston Statehouse

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BOSTON (State House News Service) – With health metrics improving and mitigation measures in place across Massachusetts schools, Elementary and Secondary Commissioner Jeff Riley said Tuesday it’s time to begin the process of getting more students back into classrooms.

Riley, who is set to join Gov. Charlie Baker and Education Secretary James Peyser for a 2 p.m. press conference on education and COVID-19, told Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members that he plans to ask them in March to give him the authority to determine when hybrid and remote school models no longer count for learning hours, as part of a broader plan to return more students to physical school buildings.

Riley said he would take a “phased approach to returning students into the classrooms, working closely with state health officials and medical experts.” He said his plan would focus on elementary school students first, with the initial goal of having them learning in-person five days a week this April.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association in a statement Tuesday the state’s plan to fully reopen most schools in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic shows callous disregard for the health and safety of school employees, students, and families and rides roughshod over the rights and interests of local communities.  

Governor Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley should go back to the drawing board. This time they must actually talk to the educators, educators’ unions, parents, school committee members, and other community leaders most impacted by their surprise and unwelcome announcement, which seems timed largely to distract public attention from the administration’s failed vaccine rollout. 

Educators, through their unions, have been working tirelessly for a year to win the CDC-recommended mitigation strategies needed so that everyone can return safely to Massachusetts classrooms and buildings. That is where we all want to be.  

In fact, many districts already have some level of in-person learning because the unions have been able to make progress in creating safe schools to benefit all. But the process has to be done right – not by once again putting the thumbscrews to districts to reopen regardless of what their communities want or need during this dangerous time. 

Governor Baker today selectively cited CDC guidance to make his case while ignoring the substantial body of CDC guidance that is contrary to the administration’s plan. 

MTA President Merrie Najimy 

School employees have been working harder than ever to educate students during the pandemic and negotiate safe learning plans that work, the MTA said, adding that the state’s new reopening plan threatens to upend much of that hard work and further disrupt an already disrupted school year.  

“We appeal to the Legislature to intervene to protect the health and safety of students and educators across the state and to stand up for the basic principle that local communities know better than the state how to run their schools safely,” Najimy stated.

About 400,000 Massachusetts students are still learning remotely.

In Hampden County, Springfield students have not returned to school buildings since the beginning of the pandemic. Springfield School superintendent Daniel Warwick says they’re hoping to slowly phase in students starting in March.

22News spoke with the Springfield School District and they said that it is too early to comment on how the state’s plan will affect their own reopening plan.

“At some point, as health metrics continue to improve, we will need to take the remote and hybrid learning models off the table and return to a traditional school format,” Riley said.

Parents would still be able to choose remote learning for their child through the end of the year, Riley said, and there would be a waiver process for districts that might need a more incremental approach.

Riley also told the board to expect more information soon on programs, slated to start this summer and likely to continue “for the next several years,” to address learning loss and gaps developed while students have been out of school buildings, including one-week intensive tutoring academies, programs with community colleges for high school seniors who did not pass MCAS tests, and increased gifted and talented programs for students of color.

Public schools in Massachusetts have been offering an array of education options this school year, with most schools blending remote and in-person learning and some schools still in remote-only operations.

Teachers and school personnel have pushed to be moved up in the vaccination eligibility hierarchy, but currently remain behind other large groups.

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