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The tide begins to turn: Some Mass. school districts move forward with remote-only plans for fall

A student interacted on a computer screen with teacher Ellie Lyons in March.
A student interacted on a computer screen with teacher Ellie Lyons in March.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

An increasing number of local districts plan to begin the school year with primarily or entirely remote learning plans, despite the urging of state and federal officials to get as many students as possible back into classrooms.

In several Massachusetts school districts this week, school committees have voted to start the fall on a remote basis, with plans to reevaluate later in the academic year whether it’s safe to bring students back amid the pandemic. Bourne, Lynn, Leominster, Somerville, Wayland, and Swampscott — Governor Charlie Baker’s own town — are among the communities that have approved remote-only models to begin the year, though some will provide in-person services for students who need it, according to state and local officials.

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Some also have plans to transition to hybrid models throughout the fall. In Dedham, students will start the year remotely, and officials have laid out a six-phase plan for shifting into a hybrid model that will include a mix of in-person and remote learning. Students with the highest needs will be prioritized in the early phases.

However, Superintendent Michael J. Welch said that before town leaders can commit to bringing students back, they need more information from the state.

Among their questions: How high does the coronavirus positive test rate need to be before sending students home to resume entirely remote learning? And should local officials look at the statewide positivity rate or their local one? The state’s rate has hovered around 2.2 percent in recent days, but it varies widely by community.

“We are not epidemiologists,” Welch said. “We’re waiting for the people to tell us what to do because I am never going to say, ‘I’m the expert on this.‘”

Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo also announced Thursday that his city’s schools will be remote-only “until the data improves.” The school committee needs to formally vote on that decision next week. Franklin has also announced its intent to begin the year remotely.

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Several local districts planned to vote on their proposals Thursday night, including Cambridge, Medford, and Weymouth.

Springfield’s school committee decided Thursday to start the school year fully remote and reassess after its first marking period.

“Of course, we want to get our children back in schools as soon as possible, but our decision must be based not only on educational aspects, but also public health, medical aspects and the science of COVID-19,” Mayor Domenic Sarno said in a statement.

The remote-only models being adopted by many communities follow a road map that seemingly contradicts the one Baker has tried to lay out. The governor has repeatedly encouraged school districts to bring back as many students as possible, and his education commissioner, Jeffrey Riley, asked districts last month to “prioritize in-person instruction” as they craft their plans for the fall.

“We have a situation where the governor and the commissioner, under the very strong advice of the American Pediatric Association and some of the best infectious disease doctors in the world, gave recommendations for returning to school, and that advice is largely being ignored by district after district after district,” said Matt Hills, a member of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Hills said he was disappointed to hear that “almost no one” is going back to school full time. Before a district pursues a remote-only approach, he added, it should have to “explain why they are choosing to overrule the recommendations for distancing of world-class health care experts.”

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In Leominster, Mayor Dean Mazzarella disagreed with his school committee’s choice to return all children to remote learning. He wanted remote to be an option — but one of many.

“I feel bad because we’re spending $85 million on remote learning, and some parents have already said, ‘My kids can’t,‘ ” he said. “One thing I know is a child’s brain doesn’t have make-up. It doesn’t have the opportunity to rewind and say, ‘Let’s make this up.‘ ”

Mazzarella is also worried about what another surge of virus cases could mean for the academic year, particularly if it means students might not get to return until fall 2021. “If you’re not going to start [bringing students back] now with cases down, then when will you start?” he said.

Across the country, several large cities — including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami-Dade — have announced plans to start the school year remotely, even as the Trump administration continues putting pressure on states to bring students back to the classroom. Last month, President Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that don’t reopen this fall, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos falsely claimed that it is not dangerous “in any way” for children to be in school.

Massachusetts school districts were asked to plan for three scenarios: an entirely in-person approach, an entirely remote experience, and a hybrid of the two. Each district’s preliminary plan was due to the state on July 31, and final plans are due by Aug. 14; a previous deadline of Aug. 10 was extended on Thursday.

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Based on their July 31 submissions, about 80 percent of Massachusetts public schools (excluding charter schools) were leaning toward a hybrid model, according to Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the state executive office of education. About 10 percent were leaning toward remote-only, and another 10 percent were leaning toward a full return.

Those plans need confirmation from local school leaders to be finalized, and some school districts have approved a different plan than the one they indicated they were favoring last week.

The shift for many school districts to a remote-only start has been a victory for some of the state’s key teachers unions. The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the state’s two largest unions, have each pushed for virtual instruction.

But in some districts, such as the Athol Royalston Regional School District, leaders are concerned that a remote-only education will leave some students behind. That’s why Athol Royalston chose to offer two choices: full-time remote or full-time in-person, said Superintendent Darcy Fernandes.

There won’t be a hybrid option, but families can choose to switch teaching models if they determine they’d prefer the other after the school year starts. In a preliminary survey sent to families in the district, about half said they would prefer remote and the other half preferred in-person, Fernandes said.

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Fernandes’s district has a large number of low-income families who may not be able to assist students with remote learning at home, she said. Plus, community members and local leaders had concerns about not being able to provide the needed services remotely for children with special needs.

“Those kids really need to be in school in order to really get what they need. Their families may not have the ability to have remote learning at home,” Fernandes said. “We didn’t want to be in a situation where those kids got further behind academically.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the status of Franklin’s fall plan. The school committee must still vote before it is official.


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.