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Skepticism, questions mark reaction to education commissioner’s calls for reopening

Students headed for the school bus after leaving Samuel Adams Elementary School in Boston.
Students headed for the school bus after leaving Samuel Adams Elementary School in Boston.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A chorus of stakeholders on Tuesday reacted skeptically to the Baker administration’s call for elementary school students across Massachusetts to have the option of returning to in-person learning five days a week, though at least one prominent Boston lawmaker praised the idea.

Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said in a statement that the approach will only work if state officials “finally provide the resources and support local districts have lacked over the past year.”

Teachers, she said, support the goal of returning kids to the classroom as soon as possible.

“The way we do that is by investing in the school safety measures we’ve been demanding for almost a year: rapid surveillance testing, ventilation upgrades to prevent transmission, and vaccinations for educators and for our students’ vulnerable family members,” Kontos said.

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State Senator Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, said in an interview that he supported the state’s push for more in-person learning.

“Yes. We need to get kids back in school as soon as possible,” he said. “When you see the disparities now between Black and brown kids trying to get educated at home, and white kids, where many of the white kids, or their parents, have decided they’re going to put them in Catholic schools, they’re going to put them in private schools, and they’re going to do all of these other things to make sure that their kids get educated.”

Holmes also cited a divide between more affluent communities and the inner cities, which he said have gone “without any type of” educational plan amid the health crisis. And, he said, all school staffers must be vaccinated; not just the teachers.

“My wife’s a teacher, so I’m careful of how I’m saying let’s vaccinate teachers,” Holmes said. “We have that conversation. She tells me all the time, when she shows up at school, that janitor, that cook, that nurse — all of them are more essential than she is. So when we have this conversation about who should be vaccinated, it should be the educational system. We shouldn’t say it’s just the teachers’ fight. There’s a lot more people. We need them all to be vaccinated and we need to get schools to open as soon as possible. Again, this is an equity issue because it’s the Black and brown kids who get hurt the most.”

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The comments from Kontos and Holmes followed remarks earlier in the day from state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, who said during the monthly meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that he would ask members next month to give him the authority to instruct districts statewide to open their classrooms full time, five days a week. Riley also presented the plan during Gov. Charlie Baker’s Tuesday press conference.

“We agree with President Biden, it’s time to get students back to school more robustly,” Riley said.

But Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, a Democrat, was pointed in his criticism of the plan Tuesday.

“Another surprise announcement without any consultation from school districts and municipalities,” tweeted Curtatone, who in December was among a group of mayors who rolled back the economic reopening process in their communities. “Educational and municipal leaders were forced to develop their own plans for how to safely and sustainably open schools because DESE failed to do so.”

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Kontos said teachers have been working to establish a safe return. “In districts across Massachusetts, educators are working with parents and administrators to overcome the obstacles to safe school reopening, and we’ve successfully reopened many school buildings for the highest-need students with proper safety measures in place,” she said.Even amid this winter’s high levels of COVID-19 transmission, more than half of Massachusetts educators are now teaching in the classroom.”

Riley said earlier that he intends to bring an end to temporary regulations that have allowed districts to operate in remote and hybrid models during the pandemic. Riley stressed parents would still have the right to keep their children at home and learn remotely, but added it’s time to make a full-time, in-school learning option available to all students. His goal, he added, was to have all students back by the end of the school year.

Requests for comment sent to the Boston Teachers Union and state Association of School Superintendents weren’t immediately returned late Tuesday morning. The Massachusetts PTA declined to comment.

Throughout 2020, Kontos said, “our state government has prioritized indoor dining, casinos, and other venues that lead to high levels of community spread, rather than focusing on curtailing community transmission and reopening school safely with surveillance testing and ventilation upgrades. Amid the Baker administration’s failed vaccine rollout, the state is the one obstacle standing in the way of the plan developed by the teachers and fire fighters unions to vaccinate educators in their local communities.”

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The Massachusetts Association of School Committees also had a tepid response to the state’s proposal, saying in a statement that the group has shared the goal of returning to in-person learning as quickly as possible.

“We remain mindful that, while most parents are eager to see their children return to in-person instruction, there remain questions of immunization, overall school safety and budget that need to be resolved,” the group said. “These decisions should remain in the hands of the people who are overseeing individual schools and school districts: school superintendents and school committees in consultation with parents and community members.”

The association said it’s also concerned about potentially rushing students to in-person classes in order to expedite “high-stakes testing” and accountability standards that would be based on learning “during a severely disrupted school year.”

“In the meantime, we hope to work with DESE and Commissioner Riley to provide a reasonable framework for getting students back to school in a way that is expeditious and inspires confidence that the decisions are made in the interests of safety of students and school personnel,” the school committee group said.

Riley’s morning announcement also followed a Twitter thread Friday in which state House Speaker Ron Mariano, a Quincy Democrat and former teacher, called for kids to get back inside school buildings, though he said that’s contingent on getting educators vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Kids need to get back into the classroom,” Mariano tweeted. “Prolonged remote learning is creating its own crisis, widening the achievement gap, and creating long lasting consequences for our students.” He wrote that as “districts continue to take protective measures, we must give teachers access to the #COVID19 vaccines, and improve the distribution system. We need to bring back confidence to in-person learning.”

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Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report, and Matt Stout of the Globe Staff contributed.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.