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State lets Boston and Worcester schools delay return to full-time classroom instruction

Boston schools will return to full-time in-person instruction for all K-8 students by April 26, and K-8 students in Worcester will return by May 3, according to letters sent by Riley.
Boston schools will return to full-time in-person instruction for all K-8 students by April 26, and K-8 students in Worcester will return by May 3, according to letters sent by Riley.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston and Worcester will have more time to prepare for the return of full-time, in-person learning after state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley on Wednesday granted waivers temporarily exempting the state’s two largest public school districts from next month’s reopening deadline.

The waivers were among 64 approved since Tuesday by Riley, who was given authority earlier this month to require districts to return students to classrooms five days a week for pre-kindergarten to fifth grade on April 5.

The decisions were welcomed by administrators and teachers unions, but some parents and elected officials cried foul as they saw yet another delay imposed on the children.

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Boston schools will return to full-time in-person instruction for all K-8 students by April 26, and K-8 students in Worcester will return by May 3, according to letters sent by Riley.

“There is no task more critical for the City of Boston than bringing back Boston’s children to full-time, in-person school after a largely remote school year,” Riley said in his letter to Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.

“We know that families are anxious to have their children back in school full-time. There can be no further delays past the waiver date of April 26, 2021 for elementary school students, and we strongly urge district leadership to bring students back earlier if at all possible.”

Cassellius said in a letter to families that the delay would allow the district to ready its facilities and make the return to full-time classroom learning safer.

“This updated timeline ensures that we have adequate time to prepare facility and transportation modifications and allows us time to communicate information to families in a timely manner,” she wrote. “In addition, every day more and more BPS staff members are receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, which will help to make our school communities feel more safe and comfortable for students, staff and families.”

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Worcester education officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

The 64 waivers approved include 29 for districts that sought to exclude fifth grade from the April 5 deadline because it is a middle-school grade in their system, according to state officials. Riley also approved waivers for 35 districts — including Brockton, Revere, Springfield, and Somerville — allowing them to return more gradually because they have been fully remote all year or most of the year.

In Somerville, students have been remote most of the year but have begun transitioning back to classrooms while introducing a mandatory student and staff COVID-19 testing program, said Susana Hernandez Morgan, a district spokeswoman.

Riley denied waiver requests from nine districts, including five that had requested to delay the return of all students from K-12 until past April 26: Wareham, Easthampton, Gloucester, Malden, and Hill View Montessori Charter School, according to state officials.

Riley also said no to four schools that sought to continue some remote teaching: Boston Collegiate Charter School, South Hadley, Roxbury Prep Charter School, and Codman Academy Charter School, the state said. He was still considering four other requests for waivers.

Teachers unions have backed the delays, saying they will give educators more time to get vaccinated and that the return to full-time classroom learning must be properly planned and executed.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said granting the waiver was “the right thing to do.”

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“The state gave very little time for districts to be able to live up to this,” Tang said. “There are a number of considerations that the district has to plan for in order to bring students back safely and thoughtfully. . . . This will give the district the time that it needs, and we’re glad to see that the state saw that the waiver was necessary.”

Officials with the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts have also voiced support for the waivers, but some parents groups have opposed them. As of Wednesday evening, almost 1,100 people had signed an online petition opposing the delay in Boston schools.

Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said parents of some special education students in Boston have been asking since the fall for in-person teaching five days a week, and Riley’s decision to grant the waiver was “disappointing.”

“A lot of our students have waited too long already, and the school year is almost over,” Harvey said in a phone interview. “Honestly, our district should have been prepared, as the COVID numbers were going down, [with] a plan that would allow them to at least bring back our K-8 students.”

Jose Baraybar of Charlestown, a father of a kindergartener at the Eliot K-8 Innovation School, said he was “deeply disappointed” the district is not more prepared to fully reopen.

His 5-year-old daughter is experiencing Zoom fatigue that is “taking over her mood, taking over her behavior,” he said.

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“Why are we where we are, given the fact that we’ve had enough time to prepare?” Baraybar, 49, asked. “One of the things that I’m deeply concerned about is the long-term health of these kids. "

James Vaznis of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.