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Mass. education commissioner wins authority to force school districts to bring students back to classrooms full time

Freshman students in a science class at Brockton High School.
Freshman students in a science class at Brockton High School.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley gained authority on Friday to force districts across the state to bring students back into classrooms full time, under a plan that aims to put student learning and well-being back on track after a year of epic disruptions.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the plan in an 8-to-3 vote, topping off nearly two hours of testimony and debate. The return of in-person instruction five days a week will begin April 5 for students in pre-kindergarten through grade 5. Middle school students will likely follow sometime after that. It remains unclear if high schools will be forced to reopen full time before the school year ends.

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“Now is the time to begin moving children back to school more robustly,” Riley said before the vote, noting that the proposal had broad support in the medical community.

The vote followed passionate public testimony about whether the state was usurping local control or whether, as others argued, state officials needed to intervene to address deteriorating mental health of students and significant and widespread learning losses.

Board members — appointed by Governor Charlie Baker who endorsed the plan last week — asked a panel of medical experts a range of questions, including about the safety risks variants of the virus presented in school settings and the capacity of schools to address mental health issues.

In the end, board members said, they felt a duty to step in.

“We have failed a generation of students in the Commonwealth,” said member Paymon Rouhanifard.

The three members who voted against the plan were those most directly tied to constituents who use the school buildings: Jasper Coughlin, the student representative; Mary Ann Stewart, the parent representative; and Darlene Lombos, the labor representative.

“We don’t know what will happen with the variants,” Stewart said. “We are not out of the woods. I’m not at all comfortable mandating that schools go back in person.”

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But not all parents shared Stewart’s viewpoint.

Bring Kids Back MA, a parent organization, submitted a petition with more than 10,000 signatures to the board urging them to grant Riley the powers he was seeking.

“I’m elated for all kids in Massachusetts who will be able to go back to school full time,” said group member Melissa Bello, a Needham mother of a first- and a fourth-grader after the vote.

Bello’s 11-year-old daughter, Eliza, couldn’t contain her excitement after her mother shared the news while picking her up from dance class.

“Fantastic!” she said.

The board’s vote comes one year after the pandemic forced schools statewide to shut their buildings and rely on the Internet for instruction, which has resulted in achievement gaps between affluent and disadvantaged students widening. Many low-income students have struggled with inadequate Internet service, subpar computers, and parents working front-line jobs that increased their exposure to the coronavirus.

The shift to online learning has created social isolation, anxiety, and depression among students of all economic backgrounds. And it has tested parents’ patience as many juggle working at home while overseeing their children’s schooling and feel they lack the skills to help their children out with their studies.

Momentum to reopen schools received a boost on Wednesday when Baker, in accordance with a directive from the Biden administration, announced that educators and other school employees would become eligible for vaccinations next week. Pharmacies, such as CVS, have already begun to give shots to teachers under a federal program.

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While vaccinations are not required to reopen school buildings, the effort is expected to ease the anxiety of school employees. It will likely take more than a month, though, for staff to get shots.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, expressed disappointment about the board’s vote after the meeting, saying the gubernatorial-appointed board unnecessarily seized control from democratically elected school committees. The move also undermined collective bargaining, she said. Unions have been negotiating safety parameters around school reopenings during the pandemic.

“Communities have already begun a phased-in approach to in-person learning,” she said. “Districts are going to have to fast track everything. It’s going disrupt lesson plans and teaching models, throw bus schedules to the wind. All of this will increase stress on already stressed out students, teachers, and staff.”

About 20 percent of the state’s districts currently provide remote-only learning, serving approximately 300,000 students, according to state data. The remaining districts are providing in-person instruction mostly part time.

Preserving local control was a chief concern for many officials.

“The situation with the virus is different in every single district,” Roberto Jiménez Rivera, a Chelsea School Committeemember, said in an interview before the vote. “We need to be listening to the people who have been most impacted by the virus before making decisions about what communities should be doing.”

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The commissioner plans to force districts to open classrooms full time by changing state regulations. Riley will remove provisions — added during the pandemic — that allow remote learning to count toward state-mandated instructional hours.

Parents can still keep their children at home to learn remotely for the remainder of the school year, but Riley told the board that he intends to end that practice for next school year. Any student who needs to remain at home in the fall, Riley, said, will need to obtain a medical exemption.

Ending the remote learning model would mean schools can focus instructional efforts on traditional classroom learning instead of having to operate two systems.

Riley stressed that he will consult public health and medical experts in making decisions and noted the department has taken steps to ensure schools can safely operate including offering districts surveillance testing.

Riley intends to create a waiver process for districts that say they can’t comply with a full return. The criteria for approval have not been released yet. It’s not clear what would happen if districts with rejected waivers refuse to reopen classrooms full time, but state policy experts say the education department could withhold state aid, an action the department rarely takes.

To ease the transition back to full-time learning, Riley has postponed the start of MCAS testing, which was supposed to begin on April 5, to later in the spring, officials announced Friday.

Leslee Parker-Sproul, who spoke at Friday’s meeting on behalf of the parent group Voices for Boston Public School Families, said parents are concerned that Boston will seek a waiver. Boston is in the early stages of returning students to classrooms part time, which currently involves early elementary grades and students with highly-specialized learning needs.

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“These urban districts are where children need access to school the most, where they’ve been without school for the longest, and where inequities are the most glaring,” she said.

Several superintendents have faulted the commissioner’s plan for lacking specifics, such as how to balance a full return of students while having enough space to practice social distancing, especially during lunch periods. Most districts have been providing 6 feet of physical distancing, but state guidelines allow as little as 3 feet in schools.

“We need the details as soon as possible for planning purposes,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis. Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.