Governor Charlie Baker turned up the pressure Wednesday for most Massachusetts school districts to bring students back for in-person classes, singling out those that are beginning the academic year remotely even though their communities are at low risk for a coronavirus outbreak.
Baker said 16 school districts had chosen a remote-only start when “the public health data supports a return to in-person learning.” His comments put those school communities on the defensive and prompted a sharp rebuke from the state’s largest teachers union.
“Local officials run their local schools,” Baker said during a press conference. “We understand that, but the state has an obligation to ensure that local officials are providing the best possible education in these difficult circumstances to kids and their communities.”
The comments came just days after state education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley asked the 16 districts to create a timeline for bringing students back for in-person learning. Riley said there was a “stark discrepancy” between their school reopening models and the public health data. School officials have 10 days to provide their timeline to the state.
In an apparent effort to encourage the schools to act, Baker pointed out that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has the option of auditing those districts to assess their efforts to provide in-person instruction, depending on the responses from the targeted districts.
The push came with emotions running high over how to reopen school in the pandemic.
School administrators who are juggling union negotiations as they try to safely reopen schools said they had been made to feel that any plans for returning students to school buildings would be left in the hands of the districts. But now things seemed turned around.
"A big part for us is readiness. And we weren’t ready. We’re still down four nurses in [school] buildings,'' said West Springfield Superintendent Tim Connor, whose district was among those singled out in a letter from Riley.
West Springfield’s school committee is expected to vote on the district’s hybrid and in-person plans on Oct. 26, Connor said.
"Obviously, if there was a date prescribed, then we would have met that date and not have just chosen October 26,'' he said. “We want our kids back in school. Remote learning is not what we want. But we also want to make sure that we’re ready.”
In Pittsfield, which is also facing pressure to begin classroom instruction, Superintendent Jason McCandless stressed that each district has “specific needs” but signaled that he will determine when it is best for in-person learning.
"Pittsfield Public Schools is working aggressively to make in-person school available to as many students as possible as soon as we are able,'' he said.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association jumped into the fray Wednesday, accusing Baker and Riley of interfering with school districts' “well-thought out plans” because they did not get the results they wanted, said the union’s president, Merrie Najimy.
“They’ve had a reckless agenda to push people into [school] buildings from the beginning,” Najimy said. "They’re just imposing their political will against the better judgment of every single school district that has made these decisions based on what they know is best for their communities.''
In addition to Pittsfield and West Springfield, the other school districts and communities are Amesbury, Belmont, Bourne, Boxford, East Longmeadow, Gardner, Provincetown, Watertown, Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public, Gill-Montague, Hoosac Valley Regional, Manchester Essex Regional, Mohawk Trail, and Mohawk Trail/Hawlemont, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The state’s virus risk map, updated weekly since early August, places communities in one of four color-coded risk categories, from the lowest to the highest — gray, green, yellow, and red — based on the average daily rates of cases in each community
Only communities in the red category — eight or more COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period — for three consecutive weeks should be pursuing remote-only education models, Baker said, “unless there are extenuating circumstances.”
On Wednesday, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the city is “very close” to moving into the red category. Boston public schools began the academic year remotely Monday, followed by a two-month plan to phase in a hybrid return to classrooms, beginning Oct. 1.
The governor emphasized that communities can bounce into different risk categories based on single events — a nursing home outbreak or a private gathering — and then bounce back to a lower risk category fairly quickly.
“In many cases, it’s because of a single event or a single institution that creates that, and that’s why we think it’s really important for people to look for trends, and trends don’t happen in seven days,” he said. “Trends happen over the course of three weeks worth of reporting,which represents four weeks worth of data.”
State education officials said that the 16 districts were targeted because they have been listed as “green” or “gray” on the state risk map for the past seven weeks, and that 12 of the districts did not indicate a return to in-person learning in the reopening plans they had submitted to the state.
Four of the districts had some in-person start times late in the fall, state education officials added. Those include Belmont, Watertown and West Springfield, which intends to return students to school buildings in late October or early November. The fourth, Mohawk Trail/Hawlemont, said its in-person learning will start on Nov. 24, state officials added.
Earlier in the summer, state officials said they asked superintendents to fill out a survey to find out whether their plans had changed since Aug. 14, the deadline for filing their reopening plans. (Districts had been asked to develop plans for remote, hybrid, and in-person learning.)
Thomas Scott, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the state’s message this summer was that districts would make decisions based on the conditions in their communities and their ability to bring back some in-person learning. As the school year began, the superintendents were contending with a host of other issues, including improving air quality in aging buildings and simply reopening in an unprecedented school year.
"Many of them are still working through some of this,'' Scott said. "I’ve talked to several of these superintendents who received the letter [from Riley], and some of them said, ‘We have a plan.’ ''
They decided to start remote-only. Others are still waiting for their school committees to give them the green light for remote learning.
Provincetown Superintendent Suzanne Scallion said that she did not indicate a start date for in-person learning in the state survey this summer because she was waiting for a vote from the local school committee. She also wanted to review virus data two weeks after Labor Day.
Scallion said she has since talked to Riley and the matter has been resolved. In-person learning in her district will start Oct. 5, she said.