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Mass. school leaders provide road map for full return to in-person learning in the fall

As of this week, 100 percent of elementary and middle schools are back full time in Massachusetts.
As of this week, 100 percent of elementary and middle schools are back full time in Massachusetts.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

With nearly all Massachusetts schools back for full-time, in-person learning, state education leaders are looking ahead to the next academic year, releasing a road map Tuesday to help school administrators and educators prepare for the fall.

The state education department expects all school districts to be fully in person in the fall, with remote learning allowed only in extremely limited cases. Just over a dozen districts have applied to the state to create online academies that would offer some students the ability to learn exclusively online.

The “academic excellence road map” emphasizes three core priorities for the 2021-22 school year: creating a sense of belonging for students and families, monitoring student understanding, and ensuring access to grade-level content, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Tuesday during a meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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The state released two versions of the road maps: one for school leaders and one for classroom educators.

“While school and district leaders, educators, students, and families have demonstrated ingenuity and perseverance over the last year and have gained many new skills and experiences, school and district leaders are grappling with many questions from how to create an instructional plan that meets students varied needs to how to keep equity at the center of our discussions,” Riley said. “Schools and districts, along with the department, need to take the lessons learned during this school year and create a clear vision and a plan for what teaching and learning will look like moving forward.”

The road maps were released as the vast majority of Massachusetts schools have brought students back for full-time, in-person learning. As of this week, 100 percent of elementary and middle schools are back full time, Riley said, and 99 percent of high schools had returned by the week of May 17.

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All families still have the option to keep their kids in a remote-learning model through the end of the academic year. The latest data from state education leaders revealed that about 735,000 students out of the state’s more than 900,000 were attending school in person as of May 19.

Both versions of the state’s acceleration road maps break the 2021-22 academic year into four phases: diagnostic and planning before the first day of school, launch in September and October, monitoring progress between November and April, and reflection and planning in May and June.

“Every year, our educators and our building administrators have to determine how to support students who are coming in at different places, leveraging their unique strengths and supporting in their areas of need,” Komal Bhasin, a senior associate commissioner for the state education agency, told board members on Tuesday. “We are anticipating that due to the pandemic, the variability and intensity of these needs will be … wider this year.”

Read the acceleration road maps

For school leaders

For classroom educators

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members also voted Tuesday to formally adopt provisions that allowed Riley to decide when remote and hybrid learning models no longer count toward state-mandated instructional hours. The student learning time amendments, approved on an emergency basis in March, had in practice given Riley the authority to require elementary, middle, and high schools to reopen for full-time, in-person learning on designated dates.

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, board members heard public comments from a variety of community leaders and parents on issues of school reopening, funding allocation, and more.

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Beth Humberd and Antigone Grasso, organizers with parent advocacy group Bring Kids Back MA, expressed their concern about the inconsistent responses among districts to the state’s recently changed mask-wearing rules.

On May 18, Massachusetts updated its mask-wearing guidance, allowing students to take off their masks for outdoor activities, such as recess, and begin sharing classroom objects again without disinfecting them between uses. However, Humberd and Grasso said, some schools have decided to keep mask requirements and other protocols in place while seeking feedback and guidance from school committees or teachers unions.

Grasso urged board members to make the state’s 2020-21 reopening protocols “null and void” and to create a guidance for the 2021-22 academic year that will manage “the extent to which districts can go above and beyond evidence-based safety protocols.”

“We need DESE to simplify the language, focus on the evidence, and allow families to play a role in choosing how to manage their child’s risk,” Grasso said. “We need to ask ourselves now what school will actually look like for these kids in the fall.”


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.