Governor Charlie Baker and top education officials unveiled a proposal on Tuesday to force districts to reopen their schools for in-person learning five days a week, a move that immediately ignited passions across the state and raised questions about local control.
The proposal calls for full-time in-person learning to begin in April for elementary schools and eventually expand it to middle schools. By then, tens of thousands of students will have been out of their classrooms full time for more than a year.
State officials said they were persuaded to step in out of concern over the deteriorating mental health of many students and increasing loss of learning. They also cited the drop in coronavirus cases around the state.
“We’ve seen the repercussions of prolonged remote learning for our kids,” Baker said at an afternoon press conference. “Their social, mental, and emotional well-being has been significantly impacted. Kids want to be in school learning alongside their friends. … They want to have a chance to engage their teachers in person.”
Officials were less clear about whether they would set a timeline for a full return for high schools before the school year ends, characterizing it as a possibility while potentially dashing the hopes of many graduating seniors. Reopening high schools is more complicated because, unlike elementary school, students do not stick with the same group of peers all day and frequently change classes in crowded hallways.
About 20 percent of the state’s districts currently provide remote-only learning, serving approximately 400,000 students, or nearly half of the state’s public school enrollment. The remaining districts are providing in-person instruction mostly on a part-time basis, although some have figured out how to do it full time, typically in the lower grades.
The announcement represents a significant shift for state officials, who have provided districts with reams of guidance on reopening schools but have resisted pleas from exhausted parents, medical experts, and some elected officials to firmly order a full-time return. Those calls have grown as COVID-19 positivity rates have decreased in recent weeks.
Questions have lingered throughout the pandemic about whether state officials have the authority to order schools to reopen, especially in a state like Massachusetts where districts enjoy a high degree of local control that includes calling off school for inclement weather and other emergencies.
Most reopening plans have also been the subject of intense negotiations with local teacher unions, and the unions reacted angrily Tuesday. Some called for vaccinations for teachers before resuming in-person schooling.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, accused Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley of trying to wrestle away local control of schools from cities and towns.
“There are places where it is possible to return to in-person learning, but the commissioner’s arrogance to create top-down mandates will not get us there,” she said, noting that the quality of ventilation varies tremendously by school and that the proposal undermines collective bargaining.
But Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said many district leaders have been looking for the state to step in.
“We have to make some bold moves here,” Scott said. “We have to take advantage of what we know ... and find ways to bring students back.”
Riley intends to push full-time learning by changing state regulations. Specifically, he said, he will seek to amend state regulations to phase out measures — added during the pandemic — that allowed districts to count remote learning time toward state-mandated instructional hours.
Parents would continue to have the option to keep their children at home full time and learn remotely, while the state would create a waiver process for districts that are unable to comply with a full return to classrooms, Riley said.
Districts currently providing only remote learning could ease back into classrooms on a part-time basis, he added.
Riley’s plan will require approval by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is expected to vote on it next month.
“We agree with President Biden,” Riley told the board members during their monthly meeting Tuesday morning. “It’s time to get students back to school more robustly.”
The moves came as Biden has been pushing states to bring more students back to classrooms and as a growing number of Massachusetts districts, including Boston and Brockton, have been reopening classrooms on a full- or part-time basis in recent weeks.
Parents expressed a range of responses.
Keri Rodrigues, president of Massachusetts Parents United, a parent advocacy organization, said the state’s effort was long overdue.
“The time has come for our children to return to buildings utilizing health and safety guidelines from public health officials instead of engaging in constant goalpost changing while the best interests of our children hang in the balance,” she said in a statement.
Claire Rowberry, a Hingham mother of a fourth- and seventh-grader, said she was disappointed that Riley didn’t have a clear timeline for reopening middle and high schools full time and didn’t share any criteria they would be using to reopen schools, especially if COVID-19 positivity rates increase again.
“It’s good to see him finally take statewide action, but it’s not enough,” she said. “Parents want a clear plan and timeline.”
Rob Moore of Amherst, who has twin daughters in first grade and a 10-year-old son in fourth grade, wondered what caused state officials to suddenly change their minds. His daughters will finally go back to their classrooms next week and his son sometime after that.
“What changed so it’s OK for them to do this now and not in September when we could have avoided a lost year?” said Moore, a member of the parent group, Amherst Safe Reopening. “We are really disappointed with leadership at every single level of government.”
State officials cited a number of factors they believe are creating the right conditions for a safe return. They noted that COVID-19 positivity rates are declining and that they have stepped up efforts to do surveillance testing of the virus in schools. Nearly 160 districts and schools have opted into the surveillance testing program. In the coming weeks, educators will become eligible for vaccinations under the state’s rollout plan.
Meanwhile, research has shown transmission of the virus in schools has been low.
Najimy and Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts also questioned the legitimacy of a reopening effort that doesn’t provide for the immediate vaccination of educators in their own communities rather than at mass vaccination sites.
“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,” Kontos said in statement, adding that more than half of Massachusetts educators are now teaching in classrooms.
Districts also have some logistical obstacles to tackle in order to accommodate a full return, including whether they can accommodate 6 feet of social distancing between students. State rules allow for a minimum of 3 feet, a standard many teachers and some parents find unacceptable.
During the state board of education meeting, member Matt Hills, of Newton, applauded Riley’s proposal and urged him to move aggressively with middle and high school students, too.
“Please get it done well before the end of this [school] year,” he said.
Speaking at an unrelated news conference Tuesday, state Attorney General Maura Healey said getting children back into school is “a matter of equity.”
“I stand in support and in partnership, and hope particularly with more vaccines coming online, that we can get these kids in school,” she said. “They need it for their mental health, their emotional health.”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.