The head of Massachusetts’ largest teachers union Friday called it “premature” for the state to end all coronavirus-related protocols in schools this fall, and said local communities should decide how to safely operate their districts, following the announcement that pandemic precautions will be dropped for the fall.
But some school superintendents voiced appreciation for the early and specific direction from the state, hailing it as a helpful step in their planning for next year. The latest state guidance, announced late Thursday keeps most school safety measures in place through the end of this academic year but lifts them for the fall, ending remote learning options and requiring school to be in-person for all.
Merrie Najimy, head of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said Governor Charlie Baker and Jeffrey C. Riley, commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, continually have failed to give proper deference to local situations, lower vaccination rates in communities of color, and the reluctance of parents there to send their children back to school full time in the fall.
“Now is not the moment to be making decisions about the future when we don’t fully understand what the context will be” in September, Najimy told the Globe. “And it’s critical that the commissioner really center the voices of the hardest-hit communities in the decision-making.”
The decision to focus on traditional in-person learning this fall echoes recent announcements made in New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It also meets the demands of most parents. Nearly 70 percent of Massachusetts parents said they wanted their children to return to the physical classroom this fall in a statewide poll released earlier this week by MassINC Polling Group.
But parent preferences varied by race. A larger percentage of Black and Asian parents want their children to study remotely, at least part time, the poll results showed.
Some conditions in school districts have improved over the course of the academic year, Najimy said. Many educators and older students are now vaccinated, and ventilation systems in some school buildings have been improved.
But she said it was too early for the state to make a sweeping decision now, when the landscape could still change based on “seasonal factors, variants overseas, and low rates of vaccination in students in the hardest-hit communities of color.”
“There’s no question that we have to get our students back to full in-person learning, but the way that we do it matters,” Najimy said.
Superintendents, on the other hand, have been urging the state to give them this kind of early guidance. “People want direction right now,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “We’ve lived with uncertainty for 14 months.”
Last year, the state left it up to districts to decide whether to hold in-person school, remote learning, or a combination of both. Complicating planning further, they encouraged district leaders to decide which model to use closer to the start of school so they were working with up-to-date infection rates. Many districts delayed the start of school, and bitter fights broke out among parents, teachers, and school leaders about reopening buildings. Superintendents would like to avoid that happening this summer, said Scott.
“We all know we’ll have to see how things evolve,” said Scott. But for now, “any strong signal” is a “big help.”
Chelsea Superintendent Almi Abeyta agreed. “Knowing that we will start somewhat ‘normal’ in the fall is helpful in terms of planning and preparing over the summer,” Abeyta wrote in an e-mail. The district was exclusively offering virtual classes until elementary and middle school students returned to their physical classrooms in April. High school students went back earlier this month.
Starting all in-person next fall makes sense to Abeyta, who said it would be “beneficial” to her students. “We have seen how happy our students are to be back,” she wrote.
Some families, however, won’t be ready to send their children back to school in the fall, Abeyta said. So Chelsea has applied to the state to start a virtual school under state guidelines predating the pandemic. Only two virtual schools currently exist in Massachusetts.
Little used before COVID-19 shuttered schools statewide and forced teachers and students online, the program saw increased interest this spring, with more than a dozen districts, including Boston, filing preliminary paperwork with the state indicating their intent to create new online academies for the fall.
Some district proposals cover all grades, while others are limited to just K-8, 6-12, or 9-12, said Jackie Reis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The plans must be submitted to the state and reviewed to ensure they include required elements, and must be approved by local school committees.
But in Burlington, Superintendent Eric Conti said he can’t afford to start a new online school, leaving him fearful that “any innovation that we created that was to the benefit of student learning is going to disappear.”
Hanging all plans on returning to school-as-usual would be a mistake, said Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang, who also called the state’s guidance premature. “School districts need to be prepared so we’re not again put in a situation where last-minute changes result in everyone scrambling ... to meet an unexpected new demand.”
State officials acknowledged in their latest update that they may issue additional health and safety guidance during the summer, including a possible recommendation that younger, unvaccinated students wear masks in school this fall.
Dr. Rick Malley, senior physician in pediatrics, division of infectious diseases, at Boston Children’s Hospital, said it’s hard to predict how necessary masks will be this fall for younger, unvaccinated children returning to school. He agreed that evolving case rates, and data about vaccine effectiveness, should be factors shaping those future decisions.
“Until we have more clarity about what will happen with the virus, my guess is that masks will probably be part of the equation for younger school-age kids,” he said. “Nobody likes to envision kids in school with masks, but it may be a necessary intervention until we have more certainty that the virus is under control, and that highly susceptible people won’t be exposed in school.”
Medford Public Schools Superintendent Marice Edouard-Vincent emphasized the uneven resources communities have had to protect themselves and their students from the coronavirus. Even before the state launched its own program, the school system formed a partnership with Tufts University and the Broad Institute last year to launch a regular pool testing program, one it plans to keep.
Edouard-Vincent expects it could take some districts up to two years to fully acclimate back to normal learning, as students deal with the trauma and disruption of learning partially or fully remotely since March 2020.
“We’re going to try to create as much normalcy as possible,” she said. “I think that’s our biggest priority, maintaining as much normalcy as possible.”
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