For days, Governor Charlie Baker has been questioning why so many school systems with low COVID-19 infection rates in their communities are starting the year with remote learning — an issue that many parents advocating for a return to full-time schooling have been raising for weeks.
Now, state education officials have issued new guidelines that tie school reopening plans to local COVID-19 infection rates, a move that could dramatically limit the use of remote learning and potentially throw an 11th-hour wrench into reopening plans days before they are due.
The guidelines — issued hours after state officials released a color-coded map of COVID-19 infection rates statewide — indicate very few districts meet the threshold to conduct all learning remotely, because their COVID infection rates are moderate or high, while several more might in extenuating circumstances, such as not having enough buses to transport students in age of physical distancing.
But the vast majority of other districts don’t have COVID-19 infection rates high enough to warrant a remote-only learning model, and instead should be offering full-time instruction or, in extenuating circumstances, a mix of in-person and remote learning. Many districts have said they are unable to return full time for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of space to physically distance all students at once or problems with ventilation systems.
“It is our expectation that districts’ learning models will follow this color-coded metric unless there are extenuating circumstances identified after consultation with local boards of health,” Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley wrote in a memo to superintendents Tuesday night that was obtained by the Globe.
He added, “We understand that local school committees and governing boards, working with district and school leaders, have recently finalized or are about to finalize initial fall reopening plans. We expect these updated metrics and related guidance will support your decision-making both for school reopening and throughout the year if we encounter changing circumstances.”
Before the guidelines were issued, a growing number of school systems with low COVID infection rates, such as in Somerville and Wayland, had signaled they were planning to start the school year remotely, while many others were planning just two days of in-person classes and three days of remote a week.
Boston, which is facing pressure from the teachers union and some city councilors to go remote, remains undecided. The guidelines indicate Boston, where infection rates vary by neighborhood, could go hybrid or remote.
The guidelines are not mandatory, but they add ammunition to an increasingly heated debate that is pitting teachers, school officials, and parents against one another over the best way to reopen schools this fall, following a statewide shutdown in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Many parents have been questioning why schools in places with low or no active COVID cases are not opening schools full time; while other parents want to keep their children at home. The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts have been pushing to start the school year remotely, while vowing members will not return to school buildings until state and local officials can prove students and adults will be safe.
Meanwhile, Baker has increasingly been questioning why districts with low COVID infection rates would be starting the school year remotely.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, scolded Riley and Baker for trying to make it more difficult to conduct remote learning, saying it was hypocritical. She pointed out the state just reduced the size of outdoor gatherings from 100 people to 50 because coronavirus cases went up this summer, yet Baker and Riley continue to push schools to open as much as possible, even though many schools educate hundreds of children and employ dozens of adults.
“To me what this illustrates is the complete failure of leadership,” she said. “Every day that we have to spend deciding on the [reopening] model is one less day we have to prepare for the model. Every day the governor refuses to have the buildings inspected is another day away from when we get back in.”
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents said the guidelines will be helpful, but questioned the timing.
“It’s great to have this, but it would have been better to have this three weeks ago when critical decisions were beginning to be made,” he said. “Let’s face it, every superintendent has been put in a wedge between parents’ desire and teacher demands and without any clear guidance or metric. Superintendents have been left on their lonesome to make recommendations.”
Scott said he doubted any superintendents, with approved plans from their school committees, would make big changes to them based on the new metrics.
But some parents are pushing for it.
Stephanie Sweet, an Andover mother of an incoming kindergartner who has been pushing for full-time schooling, fired off an e-mail Wednesday to school officials, urging them to reconsider their hybrid plan for this fall, based on the state’s new metric, which labels the town as low-risk for COVID spread and recommends full-time, in-person instruction.
“The numbers don’t warrant what school officials are prescribing” in their reopening plan, Sweet said in an interview. She also questioned how it will be possible for kindergartners to learn how to pronounce words while wearing masks and raised concerns the school reopening plan will cause inequality to widen as families with means bail out for private schools.
But in Central Massachusetts, where communities are in low-risk zones for COVID spread, Darcy Fernandes, superintendent of the Athol-Royalston Regional School District, found herself grappling on Wednesday with a COVID-19 outbreak at Athol Community Elementary School, where two cafeteria workers tested positive in less than 24 hours, forcing the entire cafeteria staff into quarantine and a shutdown of the building.
It was an unfortunate turn of events not only for the well-being of the workers but also for the district’s plans to reopen school full-time this fall — one of the few statewide trying to do so. Fernandes said she will talk with the School Committee about whether to reconsider the plan once they have a better handle on how many individuals might be affected by the outbreak.
“These workers have been on the front lines since the pandemic began,” Fernandes said. “I cannot think of a better set of individuals.”
Mary Grutchfield, president of the Athol teachers union, said the case demonstrates why all schools statewide this fall should start remotely — no place or school is immune from an outbreak, regardless of how low a community’s infection rate is.
“This community doesn’t live in a bubble,” she said. “We are moving in and out of different towns for different reasons. This is what we have been trying to explain to superintendent as we negotiate the opening of school.”
In an interview, Riley said he’s leaving it up to individual school districts to decide what reopening plan is best, but the new metric can provide critical guidance, not just in reopening schools but also when to shift between remote and in-person learning, depending on changes in COVID infection rates.
“It’s solid data based on science, blessed by the medical community,” he said. “We think this data could be incredibly useful for schools.”
Some parents, though, wish state officials would require districts to adhere to the metric and approve any deviation from the recommendations backed by evidence regarding the extenuating circumstances.
“Many people have subjective views about the course of the virus,” said Larry Schmidt, a Belmont father of an incoming kindergartner who has been advocating for a full return. “Even hard numbers like this, there is the potential for some people to make arguments, like all these college students are coming back.”
The School Committee in Belmont, which has a low COVID infection rate, voted Tuesday night for a phased-in reopening of school in which the vast majority of students will begin the year remotely. Schmidt and other parents are concerned their children will remain stuck in remote for quite some time, as local officials sort through ventilation issues and other potential problems.
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.