About 70 percent of Massachusetts school systems plan to bring students back to the classroom at least part time this fall, even as teachers unions have been aggressively pushing to keep buildings closed, state data released Tuesday show.
The data also revealed a shift in recent weeks to remote-only learning, as 30 percent of the 371 districts that made decisions on reopening plans indicated they will not open classrooms to students this fall. That’s about three times higher than what districts initially told the state last month.
Several other districts, including Boston, have not yet settled on a reopening plan.
The data — culled from reopening plans districts filed with the state in recent days — offer the most concrete glimpse so far into how schools statewide will begin their new academic years, after Governor Charlie Baker ordered all schools to close in March in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
“We’re encouraged that nearly three quarters of the school districts are planning for at least a partial in-person learning experience for kids,” Baker said in releasing the data at a State House press conference, emphasizing that the state has “put together guidelines to allow for a productive and safe learning environment that adapts to the challenges that come with COVID-19.”
Baker has been pressing districts since June to fill their classrooms with as many students as safely possible this fall and expressed frustration in recent weeks as a growing number of districts announced they would continue with remote-only instruction, even in communities with few active COVID-19 cases.
Four of the five largest school districts statewide will begin the year remotely: Worcester, Springfield, Lynn, and Brockton, according to the data.
Collectively, those districts educate more than 82,000 students.
Brockton, which had hoped to open with some in-person learning, flipped at the last minute last week as COVID-19 cases grew, while Worcester is planning to make major repairs to its aging ventilation systems.
The state instructed districts in June to draft three different scenarios for reopening school: a full return, a mix of in-person and remote learning, and remote-only instruction.
Most districts deemed a full-return unfeasible because practicing social distancing would not leave enough space to accommodate all students at once. That left districts with basically two options to ponder — a hybrid approach or remote only.
The hybrid approach varies tremendously across the state. Some districts will divvy up students into two groups and have them attend classes two days a week or every other week. When students are not in classes they will be learning remotely, which could encompass Zoom classes, writing assignments, research projects, and hands-on activities they can do at home.
All districts adopting a hybrid model or opening classrooms full time will offer parents the opportunity to keep their children at home and do all learning remotely. That instruction may be done by teachers in their own districts or an online program.
Some districts, meanwhile, will restrict in-person learning to certain groups of students, such as those with profound disabilities or students in elementary grades.
Matthew Malone, superintendent of the Fall River public schools, the 10th largest school district in the state, expressed appreciation that the School Committee supported his recommendation for hybrid learning, believing it provides the best educational opportunity during the pandemic while keeping students and staff safe.
He also lauded the plan for its flexibility to easily shift from a hybrid model to remote learning if a spike in COVID-19 cases warrants closing schools.
“You can be open one day and close the next — it’s going to be that kind of year,” said Malone, a former state education secretary.
The high percentage of districts and schools offering some level of in-person instruction will likely intensify the showdown between district leaders and teachers unions.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, and the Boston Teachers Union have all instructed their members to stay out of school buildings this fall until state and local officials can prove the buildings are safe enough for teaching and learning during the pandemic.
The directive has raised questions about whether the unions might be organizing a statewide action next month, although it is illegal for teachers to strike under state law. The unions will hold rallies on Wednesday at the State House, on Cape Cod, and in Western Massachusetts to advocate for remote learning.
Union leaders expressed disappointment that so many districts plan to reopen classrooms, accusing school district leaders of putting lives at risk.
“I don’t know why we have to get sick before districts take the highest precaution,” said Beth Kontos, AFT president.
Merrie Najimy, the MTA president, chided Baker for not coming up with a comprehensive plan for the state and districts to inspect school buildings — many built decades ago — to ensure they are safe enough for a pandemic.
“It’s reckless,” Najimy said. “The bottom line is the governor’s refusal for not requiring buildings to be safe is putting us on a collision course with COVID-19.”
Many local teachers unions are in the process of negotiating the details of the reopening plans. Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, questioned whether teachers would actually stay out of buildings this fall.
“This is the biggest game of education policy chicken in a long time,” he said. “To the extent there is resistance and civil disobedience, we will see.”
It remains unclear when Boston will make a decision on reopening schools. Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius continue to remain optimistic that COVID-19 rates will remain low enough for schools to reopen and were giving away backpacks filled with school supplies Tuesday morning.
“We are putting the needs of the most vulnerable students at the center of all of our plans,” Walsh said at a press conference later in the afternoon.