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Leominster mayor declares public health emergency over remote learning system

MAGGIE SHANNON/NYT

Leominster Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella on Tuesday declared a public health emergency in his city over the remote learning system currently in place for local school children amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a briefing broadcast live on Facebook, Mazzarella said the declaration means the School Committee must provide city officials with the metrics they’re using to determine when — or if — schools will reopen for in-person learning.

In addition, Mazzarella said, officials as a result of the declaration will explore whether a local school can function as a temporary learning space for children who require one. He said he’s particularly worried about special needs students and learners with individualized education plans, or IEPs.

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Mazzarella called an emergency meeting Monday night to discuss remote learning concerns with the School Committee. At a prior meeting, the mayor, who sits on the committee, made a motion to bring back students in kindergarten through grade four for in-person learning, “and I couldn’t get a second," he said.

“Now we moved toward a public session last night," Mazzarella said of Monday’s emergency meeting, asserting that other committee members wanted “to get out of there because they’re serving cookies up at the workshop. Right? I guess, or something. Like this workshop - the workshop with somebody that used to be on the School Committee in Worcester, who now works at the Mass. Association of School Committees.”

The workshop, he said, dealt with “how to run a meeting,” which local officials could have run.

“Can you believe this stuff?" Mazarella said. “Can you make it up? ... Over 1,000 people listened to this on the radio. Right? And they had to go to a workshop. Listen, there’s nothing wrong - you got to make priorities. And we cleared it with the city solicitor’s office, that they could have waited to start their meeting. They could have waited and just went through the regular meeting and then started the next meeting. It wasn’t a big problem, right? ... These are people making decisions about the future of your kids and whether your kids stay home. Come on."

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Some on the School Committee have noted the city’s been bringing students back to school based on need in “micro-hybrids,” and that they’re scheduled Oct. 5 to vote on a hybrid plan for about 70 percent of students who aren’t part of the micro-groups.

And on Tuesday, School Committee Chair Eileen Griffin said in a statement that the panel was “disappointed” by the mayor’s move.

“The committee had voted 5-4 to start the school year remotely,” Griffin said via e-mail. “Much thought and consideration went into our decision. Since that time, the committee has voted unanimously to bring back the following micro hybrids; Leominster Center for Excellence, CTEi (our vocational component), and some special education programs. In person kindergarten screening also started this week.”

Beginning Oct. 5, kindergarteners and English Language Learners will return to the schools. At its meeting scheduled for that night, the committee will also discuss the return of the rest of the school population in a hybrid model, she said.

Families will still have the option to remain fully remote. “We have worked diligently to prepare our buildings to ensure a safe integration back into the classroom,” Griffin said.

The school district, she said, has “a strong teacher union,” and officials “have worked collaboratively with them throughout this process. We understand that these are very stressful times for our students, families, and teachers and hope to keep moving forward to provide the best education under these difficult circumstances.”

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Back in July, Mazzarella added, some 3,000 Leominster parents were surveyed, and 48 percent indicated they wanted their children back in school full time, while 35 percent supported a mix of in-person and remote learning.

Yet the School Committee, Mazzarella said, voted 5-4 in July to go remote only to start the year.

“What is the criteria that you’re using” to determine whether schools can reopen, Mazzarella said, addressing the committee directly. “If it’s the World Health Organization, fine. Let us know.”

He said that while some families are doing well with remote learning, and teachers have worked hard to educate kids under trying circumstances, he had no choice but to declare the current state of affairs “a public health crisis” that could become a “mental health crisis.”

“This can’t wait another day,” he said.

As of the Sept. 23 weekly public health report put out by the state Department of Public Health, Leominster was classified in the green low-risk category for COVID-19 transmission, with 1.8 cases per 100,000 people.

The emergency declaration from Mazzarella comes after Governor Charlie Baker last week turned up the pressure 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.

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Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.