In another sign of a return to normalcy in Massachusetts public schools, thousands of middle school students will be back in class for full-time learning at the end of next month, the state’s top education official announced Tuesday.
Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s decision to return students in grades 6 to 8 on April 28 comes just days after the state Board of Education empowered him to determine when remote or hybrid-learning will no longer count toward student learning hours in public school districts.
Elementary school students are due to return to school on April 5. A date for high schools to offer in-person learning will be determined soon, the state said Tuesday.
“Now is the time to begin moving children back to school more robustly,” Riley told the state Board of Education last week, prior to the vote to give him the authority to force schools to reopen.
As part of the announcement, the state said returning students must wear masks in schools, including those in the youngest grades.
Riley’s directive on middle schools drew sharp criticism from the state’s two largest teachers unions, who reiterated their call for teachers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before returning to school.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the state’s directive “represents an arrogant one-size-fits-all view that state education leaders know better than parents or school committees what’s best for their school districts.”
“Now is not the time for the commissioner to usurp the authority of local districts,” Najimy said. “Where he should put his energy is making sure a full reopening is timed with school employees being vaccinated. Get us vaccinated, and get us vaccinated now.”
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, shared those concerns.
“There are no cookie-cutter answers to getting more students in person throughout the state,” she said in an e-mail Tuesday. “Some districts will have a much easier time welcoming more students back to in-person classrooms.”
Public school teachers are eligible to sign up to receive the vaccine at CVS pharmacies, and as of Thursday, will be able to register for appointments at state-run mass vaccination sites. But with appointments hard to get, teachers unions are pushing for Governor Charlie Baker to approve a plan to allow teachers to be vaccinated at their schools by firefighters.
“I am hoping that the governor will approve our Last Mile vaccine plan so that the adults in the schoolhouse can be safe. This would be a perfect time to display his support for the health and safety of our educators,” Kontos said.
Under Riley’s new directive, middle schools (grades 6 through 8) are required to reopen for full-time, in-person instruction on Wednesday, April 28, but districts can allow students who traveled to certain states the week prior for April vacation to continue remote learning for the week of April 26 only.
An estimated 213,360 students are enrolled in grades 6 through 8 this academic year, according to data from the state.
Some school districts, including Boston, have already set plans to gradually return students to classrooms.
Public schools in Boston are set to reopen under a hybrid model for students in grades 4 through 8 beginning March 15. School district officials said they will distribute a survey to families in the coming days “to determine their interest in returning to five days of in-person learning,” according to a statement.
“We share the commissioner’s goal of restoring expanded in-person learning opportunities as soon as possible. As the largest district in the Commonwealth serving a diverse, multilingual community, BPS has complex operational and communication considerations that require advanced planning with staff and families.”
In Medford, where students are currently learning in a combination of remote and in-person learning, the district is eager to return full-time, Assistant Superintendent Peter Cushing said.
“We’re hoping to meet that [April 28] deadline and maybe even find ways to beat it,” Cushing said. “We’re excited to move back to some sense of normalcy.”
The state guidelines announced Tuesday come with additional changes. Notably, all students must wear masks in class, unless they have a medical exemption. Previously, masks were encouraged, but not required, for students in grade 1 and below.
All families will continue to have the option to keep their children in a remote learning model through the end of the school year, according to the guidance published by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Students who need to isolate or quarantine after being diagnosed with COVID-19, or coming into contact with someone who has, will also be allowed to learn remotely.
School districts that decide they cannot reopen their schools five days a week under the state’s timeline can apply for a waiver, which Riley is expected to grant “for a limited set of circumstances in which districts make a compelling case that they must take an incremental approach” to reopening school full time, according to the guidance.
Districts that have been in primarily remote models all year, for example, may want to return using a hybrid model at first before returning to full-time, in-person learning. Another acceptable waiver request, according to the state guidance: Schools with unique grade configurations, such as a district where the elementary school stops in fourth grade and middle school begins in fifth, can request to delay the start of in-person learning for 5th graders until the middle school start date.
Waivers will not be accepted from school districts whose leaders say they can’t return full time because of space constraints, but they are maintaining social distancing of more than 3 feet. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended 6 feet of distancing between people, Massachusetts school officials require only a minimum of 3 feet.
Many physicians and public health experts have said it’s safe for students to return to classrooms with 3 feet of distance, as long as other mitigation measures are strictly followed. In a letter sent to Riley last month — cosigned by more than 300 people as of Monday — experts urged Riley not to accept waivers from districts not following the state’s social distancing directive.
Teachers and staff members should maintain 6 feet of social distancing from students and other adults whenever “feasible,” state officials say, but may need to be closer than 6 feet for short periods of time.
State officials also do not expect to grant waivers due to high community prevalence of the coronavirus.
Any school or district that submits a waiver is expected to include a timeline for bringing students back for full-time, in-person classes. All waivers will be approved for a limited time only, according to the state guidance.