Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Thursday he wants most school districts to take advantage of the “window” of time when coronavirus transmission rates are low enough to bring students back to the classroom.
“We know the possibility of a second spike exists, but while we are in a situation where a district has been green or gray for many weeks, we are asking districts to bring kids back to school in person or in a hybrid model,” Riley said, referring to the state’s color-coded coronavirus risk map that puts communities in one of four risk categories. Gray and green communities are the lowest risk rankings.
“It would be unfortunate if later in the year, a district had to go remote because the virus spiked back up in their community and they recognized, ‘Wow we could have had our kids back in for a couple of months or maybe even six months, and we missed that window,’” Riley continued, speaking at a press conference at the State House.
Only districts that are in the state’s red coronavirus risk category — the highest risk designation — for three consecutive weeks should stick with remote-only learning, Riley and Governor Charlie Baker have said.
Riley also spoke Thursday about a “soup-to-nuts” audit by the state that could be imposed on some districts that are pursuing a remote-only start to the academic school year. Sixteen districts have been identified by Riley and Baker for starting remotely despite public health data indicating it is safe to bring students back, the state leaders have said.
The districts have been asked to create timelines for integrating in-person learning and submit them to the state within 10 days. Some may be audited depending on their responses, Riley said.
“It’s two things: It’s a focus on what’s happening remotely and what that looks like, what the instruction looks like, instructional hours, things like that, but it also looks at the entirety of the district from our special education students being served, second-language learners. What’s the quality of the curriculum?” Riley said. “It’s kind of a soup-to-nuts audit is what that is.”
Asked whether more school districts could be added to the list of those being examined by the state, Riley said it will be an ongoing process throughout the academic year.
“We’re going to be in this situation all year long, so it would not surprise me if we were to look during the year about where people are to make sure people are lined up,” he said. “We’re asking people to really follow what the doctors built for us.”
Riley’s Thursday comments came just one day after Baker ramped up pressure on most Massachusetts school districts to bring students back to school, specifically in low-risk communities where “public health data supports a return to in-person learning.”
“Local officials run their local schools,” Baker said during a Wednesday 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.”
State leaders specifically highlighted Quincy Public Schools on Thursday. Baker said their reopening process has been an “excellent model of how to safely and responsibly get back to school.”
Also on Thursday, Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito announced that the state’s third annual STEM Week will take place from October 19 to 23 with both virtual and in-person events.
“Across our Commonwealth, nurses and doctors are saving lives, scientists are working furiously to develop a vaccine, and advanced manufacturers quickly shifted gears to produce personal protective equipment,” Polito said in a statement. “Battling COVID-19 highlighted how crucial the need is for young people to study science, technology, engineering and math, and our administration remains committed to paving pathways to STEM careers and education for students in and out of the classroom.”