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Mass. school officials audit two districts over timelines for bringing students back to class in person

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.
Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.Sam Doran/Pool

Two Massachusetts public school districts will be audited by the state over their timelines for bringing students back for in-person instruction, Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley told each district in letters on Tuesday.

Writing to school committee chairs in East Longmeadow and Watertown, Riley said that he is concerned each district is not "aligning its reopening model” with town or city public health metrics, which are released by the state each Wednesday.

“When the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released guidance on implementing the Department of Public Health color-coded metrics on August 11, 2020, we indicated that we did not expect any immediate changes to district plans based on this data. However, we clearly stated the expectation that districts use this data to inform their learning models throughout the school year,” Riley wrote in a letter to the one of the districts.

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Massachusetts public health officials release a weekly color-coded coronavirus risk map that puts communities in one of four risk categories — gray as the lowest risk and red as the highest.

Both Riley and Governor Charlie Baker have said that only districts that are in the state’s red coronavirus risk category for three consecutive weeks should be keeping all students in remote-only learning. The rest should be offering some form of in-person instruction, they have said.

For the two-week period ending Oct. 10, East Longmeadow was in the red category, and Watertown was in the yellow (the second to highest risk). In the previous week’s report — based on the two-week period ending Oct. 3 — East Longmeadow was designated yellow, and Watertown was one risk level below at green.

The two audited districts were among 16 that Riley contacted in September to ask for specific timelines for “providing in-person instruction for the majority of your students.” He warned in his initial letter that their response could “trigger an audit.”

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The other 14 school districts whose reopening plans were reviewed were: Amesbury, Belmont, Bourne, Boxford, Gardner, Pittsfield, Provincetown, West Springfield, Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public, Hoosac Valley Regional, Gill-Montague, Mohawk Trail, Mohawk Trail/Hawlemont, and Manchester Essex Regional.

A spokeswoman for DESE said Tuesday that the majority of districts contacted “have expedited their timeline for returning students to some form of in-person instruction,” and some have already made progress on getting students back to the classroom.

But when it came to East Longmeadow and Watertown, the spokeswoman said, “neither of these school districts significantly moved their timeline for returning students to in-person or hybrid instruction, despite concerns raised by the Commissioner.”

John Portz, chair of the Watertown School Committee, said he felt they put together a plan that was best for their community, based on the data they had available to them. They’re on track to tentatively bring elementary school students back to school for hybrid learning next week, and they’re reviewing a proposal from the superintendent to move up in-person learning for middle school students.

“We feel like we’re moving along the schedule that we had,” he said. “I know the state would like us to move a little faster. That’s clear. But I think we’re trying to do what we think is best for the community.”

Watertown has welcomed its high-needs students back to schools already, Portz said, estimating that about 330 students are attending those in-person programs. Before bringing other students back, city leaders had to make some improvements in older school buildings, he added.

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School officials from East Longmeadow did not respond to a request for comment.

In a press conference last month, Riley referred to the potential audits as a “soup-to-nuts” evaluation. The spokeswoman for the department said Tuesday that DESE will look into several items including:

  • Whether they are adhering to state and federal regulations around structured learning time
  • If the district has a clear plan to return to in-person instruction that appropriately takes into account health and safety data
  • Whether appropriate supports are being provided to students with disabilities, special needs, and English language learners
  • And whether teachers and administrators are regularly communicating with students and families

Riley said the school districts will be contacted on or before Friday to schedule the audit.

“As I stated in my previous letter to you, I look forward to working together to ensure as many students as possible can benefit from safe, in-person instruction this school year,” Riley wrote.



Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.