State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has approved requests from 58 school districts seeking to delay reopening their lower grades full time, but is taking more time to consider requests from Boston and Worcester, state officials said on Tuesday.
He also denied requests from six districts, which the state would not identify, because they wanted to keep full-time remote learning for most or all students through the end of the year, or they wanted to continue rotating students in groups between days of remote learning and in-classroom instruction.
The districts that received approval for an extension include Brockton, Chelsea, Springfield, and Somerville. Riley is planning to scrutinize requests from 10 other districts, including Boston and Worcester, before making a final decision.
“We are pleased that 90 percent of districts will have their elementary schools back fully in-person by April 5, with all elementary schools in the Commonwealth fully in-person by May 3,” Riley said in a statement. “Bringing all our kids back to school is crucial for their educational progress, emotional and social well-being, and we will continue to work with districts to bring students back ahead of their waiver-approved return dates.”
The decisions came one day after the deadline for districts to file for exemptions from a state edict to resume full-time in-person learning in kindergarten through grade 5 by April 5. The state is still accepting requests from districts for waivers from fully reopening middle schools by April 28.
Parents will retain the right to keep their children at home to learn remotely for the remainder of the school year, under the state order.
Districts around the state have been scrambling to comply with the state mandate, which was officially announced less than three weeks ago. While most districts have been offering in-person instruction on a part-time basis for much of this school year, many of the state’s largest districts, including Boston, were in the midst of reopening classrooms part time or are still operating remotely.
A return date for high schools has not been set. Reopening high schools full time is trickier because it is difficult to ensure social distancing in crowded hallways between class periods, and because students don’t stick with the same classmates throughout the day as elementary students do.
Middle school students also change classes but tend to stick with peers in their own grade level.
News of approval came as a relief to several school systems.
“Delaying our transition to in-person learning until April 26 will give the Brockton Public Schools time to address our new transportation needs and to procure large tents so that we can host lunch periods outdoors,” said Jess Hodges, a Brockton schools spokesperson. “We’re grateful for DESE’s quick response to our waiver request.”
Springfield Superintendent Daniel J. Warwick said the additional time will ensure a smooth transition.
“We are looking forward to welcoming students back into schools after more than a year of fully remote education,” Warwick said in a statement.
Chelsea will be making the jump from full remote to full-time in-person learning. Students in kindergarten through fourth grade will, under the waiver, start on April 12. Fifth graders, who attend middle school, will return on April 28, when the rest of those grade levels do. “We are thrilled and grateful,” said Chelsea Superintendent Almi Abeyta.
But some parents blasted Riley for approving the delays.
“It feels like they are playing with our kids’ future,” said Caitrin MacDonald, a single mother of three children in Somerville, which only recently began to bring students back on a part-time basis. “This is politics over education.”
MacDonald, who works full time in urgent care at a homeless shelter, said she is worried about how much her children are falling behind in their classes and the toll the social isolation has taken on them during the pandemic.
Riley has full discretion to approve or reject the waivers on a case-by-case basis. Riley has said he would grant waivers only under limited circumstances, such as allowing districts currently offering just remote instruction the ability to transition back into classrooms part time. But he said all districts must commit to a timeline for a full return.
The commissioner is taking a tough stand on social distancing, informing districts he would not approve any waivers due to a lack of space if officials were providing more than 3 feet of physical distancing in classrooms. He also said he will not let schools remain closed in communities with high prevalence of COVID-19, noting that a growing body of research indicates that transmission of the virus in school settings has been low.
Almost half the waivers that were granted — 26 — were for delaying full-time instruction in grade 5 in districts where that grade is in a middle school rather than an elementary school. Thirty were approved to return incrementally because they have been fully remote the entire year. These districts will return to hybrid mode by April 5, then return fully in person later in April or early May.
Some large districts, such as Fall River, Lawrence, and New Bedford, did not file requests seeking to delay full-time in-person learning.
Boston officials announced on Monday they were seeking a delay in reopening elementary schools full time in an effort to ensure a smooth transition. They have targeted April 26 for full-time in-person instruction in all elementary and middle schools and early learning centers. Boston is still in the process of surveying the parents of its more than 50,000 students, a critical first step to determine how to configure space in its classrooms and draft new bus routes.
So far, well more than half of the Boston respondents indicated they would prefer a full return.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told city councilors during a hearing on Tuesday that she expects Riley to make his decision on the waiver in the coming days.
“We think we have everything in place to have a safe and smooth opening,” she said.
About 900 parents have signed an online petition urging Riley to reject Boston’s request for a delay. Andrew Lamb, who has two children at the Eliot K-8 School in the North End, said in an interview that Boston needs to get learning back on track now and questions whether additional time will lead to a smooth reopening.
“Regardless of how much time you have to plan, it will be bumpy,” said Lamb, a member of Vocies for BPS Families, which has been pushing for a full return. “It’s not like the buses run that well the first week of school anyway.”
In Worcester, the state’s second largest school system, Superintendent Maureen Binienda sought Riley’s permission to delay full-time reopening until May 3, citing the need for “additional planning and coordination in many key areas: instruction, staffing, food service, building sanitation, school space and transportation.”
More than half of the district’s 24,000 students require transportation, and 13 schools in the city “cannot accommodate” 3-foot spacing of students in classrooms, according to the city’s waiver request.
Worcester schools were in the midst of transitioning students from full-time remote learning to a hybrid plan when the state imposed the new full-time reopening schedule.
School leaders in Malden asked the state for an extra two weeks to implement each phase of reopening, time they said would help them address staffing and logistical issues and would allow more teachers to be vaccinated. The district expects a ruling on its waiver request by mid-week, following an on-site visit by state officials, School Committee member Adam Weldai said.
“At the very least, they’ve heard from us and know what we’re struggling with,” he said.
Felicia Gans, Jenna Russell, and Bianca Vázquez Toness of the Globe staff contributed to this report.