State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley on Tuesday announced that all public high schools should resume full-time, in-person learning by May 17, initiating the final wave of school reopenings statewide.
Students will be returning full-time when high schools typically bustle with springtime activities, from preparations for graduation to the grind of final exams and MCAS testing. State officials hope teens will click off their Zoom cameras and rejoin their classmates in both the social and academic aspects of high school life.
The news generated mixed reaction among students.
“It feels a little useless at this point,” said Katy Ochoa, a Chelsea high school senior, who noted she’s worried it might be too soon to bring students back. “It seems more realistic to finish the school year [remotely] and start the next year strong.”
But others felt any additional days of in-person learning were worthwhile.
“I need to be in a classroom to learn to the best of my abilities,” said Mohammed Diallo,14, a freshman at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston.
José Paz,17, an immigrant from Honduras and freshman at Boston International Newcomers Academy, was thrilled to hear his school might open five days a week. “I’ll learn more this way,” he said in Spanish.
The announcement represents the final push by state education officials to get schools fully reopened, more than a year after the pandemic forced a statewide closure. State officials initially ordered elementary schools to fully reopen by April 5 and then instructed districts to bring middle schools back full-time by Wednesday.
“Every day a child is in a classroom is crucial,” Riley said in a statement. “In addition to academic instruction and support, we know when students are in school, they have the opportunity to learn important social and emotional skills, and have access to healthy meals as well as mental health and other support services.”
Many districts have been fully reopening their schools ahead of state deadlines. Currently, 146 districts are offering in-person instruction five days a week for all grades. By May 17, 198 districts plan to be back fully in person in grades K-12, including two-thirds of all high schools, according to the state.
But the state has allowed some districts, particularly those in communities hit hard by the pandemic, to reopen on a later timeline. Boston, for instance, just opened its elementary schools full-time on Monday, but also opened its middle schools the same day.
State officials said they will entertain districts’ requests to delay reopening their high schools. But they stressed the current timeframe provides districts with a good test run before a new school year begins in the fall.
“As we have stated repeatedly during this school year, there is no substitute for in-person learning, particularly for students with disabilities and English learners,” said Education Secretary James Peyser in a statement.
Brenda Cassellius, superintendent of Boston schools, said the district will fully reopen the district’s nearly three dozen high schools by May 17, noting it will be useful in providing academic and social-emotional support for students and helping seniors finalize graduation plans and college decisions.
“It just brings about a sense of normalcy again, and helps turn the page in getting ready for summer school and … reopening in the fall,” she said.
The buildings will be considerably less empty than during a traditional school year. The district is expecting slightly less than half of its approximately 15,000 students, who travel by public transit, to attend in-person five days a week.
The state push comes amid concern about upticks in coronavirus cases among teenagers and children, who are still largely unvaccinated. Right before students departed for April vacation, the state recorded its highest weekly total of coronavirus cases in public schools, which included 1,095 students and 184 staff members.
State officials stress the risk of transmission is low in schools because of safety standards, which include mask mandates and a minimum of 3 feet of social distancing in classrooms. And surveillance testing, they added, indicates less than 1 percent of students attending in person have been positive for COVID-19.
State officials are strongly encouraging high school students who are eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations to get their shots. Students as young as 16 qualify. Clinical studies are underway to determine whether the vaccines can be safely administered to younger children.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the state should craft a concrete plan to vaccinate eligible high school students, as well as a public outreach campaign.
“Our educators look forward to warmly welcoming back our high school students to five days a week in-person learning, just as we did for our K-8 students this week,” she said. “If the state had made greater prior investments in facilities. . . our high school students could have returned even earlier.”
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, also urged districts to bolster surveillance testing of students and staff and to hold classes and lunch periods outside as much as possible.
“I want these kids to be safe,” she said.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts of School Superintendents, said he hasn’t heard a lot of push back from superintendents about fully reopening high schools. He said Riley gave them a heads up earlier this month.
The biggest headaches in fully reopening high schools, Riley said, are scheduling lunches with 6 feet of social distancing and redoing class schedules — a task that often takes guidance counselors months of planning. A full-scale reopening can also temporarily distract from learning, he noted.
“It’s like coming back for the first day of school,” he said.
In March, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave the power to force districts to reopen, allowing him to phase out pandemic-related rules that enabled districts to operate entirely or partly remotely, with no full-time, in-person option.
Schools, however, must continue to offer a remote-only option for students whose parents prefer to keep them at home. The state is adding some mandates to ensure students at home are safe and academically engaged, such as requiring districts to include a daily visual “live check-in.”