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State education commissioner Riley earns high marks on annual performance review amid unprecedented pandemic year

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.
Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.Matt Stone/Pool

Massachusetts Board of Education members praised Commissioner Jeffrey Riley Tuesday for his leadership overseeing the state’s public schools during the unprecedented pandemic year.

In his annual performance review — put together by Chair Katherine Craven, Vice Chair James Morton, and members Amanda Fernández and Matt Hills — Riley received a 4.75 ranking on a 5-point scale. They lauded him for being accessible to stakeholders and families during the pandemic, attending to the needs of students and schools, and advancing educational equity.

“Commissioner Riley was commended for his strong and effective leadership, especially during one of the most difficult times in the history of our Commonwealth, if not our nation, and he provided tremendous support, courage, and boldness during the time of COVID-19, oftentimes making recommendations and decisions such as the reopening of schools, which was an extremely difficult decision to make at the time that it was being proposed,” said Morton, who chaired the performance review committee. “His leadership was marked by incredible accessibility and attentiveness to the needs of stakeholders.”

But Riley’s leadership also has been the target of criticism from both teachers unions and parent groups over the past year as he navigated decisions around school reopening and COVID-19 protocols.

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Some parent groups, such as Bring Kids Back MA, had for many months criticized Riley’s decision to let local school districts decide when to offer in-person learning, voicing concern that children were regressing both academically and socially while they stayed in remote learning models. Teachers unions, on the other hand, were upset by Riley’s choice this past spring to mandate schools reopen for full-time, in-person learning arguing that some districts did not have the physical space or proper ventilation systems to make classroom learning for everyone safe.

Even during Tuesday’s meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, community members against mask mandates for children shouted over the board several times. People later stood outside the building and briefly pounded on the windows of the meeting room.

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Riley, asking the protesters to stop banging on windows, reminded people at the meeting that required mask-wearing in schools was only in effect through the end of the 2020-21 academic year. During summer programs, schools will be encouraged to follow COVID-19 safety protocols, including mask-wearing, but will not required. Masks are not expected to be required in schools this fall.

Secretary of Education James Peyser said Riley has been particularly skillful at balancing the competing priorities of both education and public health groups, “which of course was never part of the job description when he came on board.”

“Throughout the last year or more, he has been I think very both wise and aggressive in making resources available to the field to meet the most critical needs that they were facing, in particular in advance of other federal funds being made available to them,” Peyser said.

He thanked Riley also for “never losing focus throughout this period on what was in the best interest of children.”

Most years, the committee uses four metrics to evaluate the performance of the commissioner, analyzing their success in: facilitating student growth and achievement, management and operations, external relations and communication, and board support and effective interactions.

This year, however, because of the challenges presented by the pandemic, committee members said they chose a holistic approach.

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