The state’s education commissioner informed the Boston school system Friday that he will only approve remote learning for four days at the Curley K-8 School following a COVID-19 outbreak, and urged the school system to reopen the school as soon as possible.
City officials abruptly closed the Jamaica Plain school after dismissal Tuesday, following the an outbreak of COVID-19 that has resulted in at least 46 cases, and are not planning to reopen it until Nov. 22 -- a date school officials may have to reconsider based on the commissioner’s decision.
“Maximizing safe in-person learning remains a top priority for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this school year,” the commissioner, Jeffrey Riley, wrote in a letter to Boston school officials. “I am particularly concerned that remote learning will not fully meet the academic and social emotional needs of our students, especially students with disabilities, English learners, and other vulnerable students.”
Under the waiver Riley approved, he is allowing the Boston schools to count remote learning on Wednesday and Friday of this week and on Monday and Tuesday of next week toward its legal obligation to provide students with 180 days of schooling. (Thursday was Veterans Day and classes were not held.)
A Boston schools spokesperson said officials are reviewing the commissioner’s decision and his request to return students to school sooner than Nov. 22.
“We will make a decision in partnership with the Boston Public Health Commission, always with the top priority of keeping our students, staff, families and Boston community healthy and safe,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Some Curley parents expressed disappointment that Riley was pushing the school district to resume in-person learning much sooner than what the Boston Public Health Commission had recommended. Maia BrodyField, whose son attends the fourth grade at the Curley, questioned how an education official could override the advice of a public health agency.
“It’s the latest in a series of incomprehensible decisions out of” the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said BrodyField, who also faulted the agency for adopting a narrow definition for a close contact and for its initial desire during the summer not to mandate mask wearing.
She also wondered what basis Riley used to determine that four days of remote learning was acceptable but not seven days, which would have encompassed the full length of the closure after factoring out weekends and Veterans Day.
“Why does he think the teachers are only able to deliver good teaching for four days and not seven days?” she asked. “I’m struggling to understand the rationale.”
The Boston Teachers Union also blasted Riley.
“The state should not be playing politics around school schedules or gambling with the health of students and their families,” said Erik Berg, the union’s vice president, in a statement. “The idea that the state is not going to give students credit for learning days that are remote under these circumstances strikes most parents and educators as bizarre.”
He also implored the state education department to improve the implementation of the COVID-19 testing programs its providing Boston and other districts, noting it’s essential “to keep students safe and to ensure the continuity of in-person learning.”
If the school district wants to keep the Curley closed after next Tuesday, students will have to make up those days, according to the state. In such cases the state generally recommends that districts make up the time by using vacation days or Saturdays, or adding days to the end of the school year.
However, Riley stressed his desire for Boston to reopen the Curley as soon as possible. And he criticized the district for not taking enough steps to prevent the closure of the entire school and not adequately consulting the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education before making its decision to close the building.
Boston school officials first notified the department about problems containing the outbreak on Nov. 4, and on Monday requested that the state send additional staff to run a so-called “test and stay program.” That state initiative that allows students and staff who had close contact with an infected individual to remain in school with a daily negative rapid test result.
The district also didn’t pursue another option the state has made available to avoid COVID-related school closures — switching affected classrooms or grade levels to remote learning. Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has said the district couldn’t do that at the Curley because the outbreak spanned multiple classrooms and grade levels.
“It is possible that the spread of COVID-19 was truly so rapid that earlier mitigations would not have had an effect,” Riley wrote. “However, we are left to wonder if the whole school closure at the Curley could have been avoided if progressive interventions recommended by DESE were implemented last week, such as quarantining individual classrooms or grade levels.
“Absent such efforts to stop the spread earlier, I recognize that school staff became overwhelmed by a sharply increasing number of cases and that a temporary school closure became necessary,” he added.
In making the wavier request, Cassellius noted that the district “did not make this decision lightly” in closing the Curley. The Boston Public Health Commission “felt that time was of the essence to stop the spread,” she wrote in the request, which was filed Thursday.
“For instance, between October 30 and November 8, the day before BPHC advised us to take this action, we saw an increase of 44 cases in 21 classrooms. We oversaw a five-fold increase in the number of students testing through the Test and Stay Program, from 100 students a day to 500 students, which is more than half the school getting tested daily.”
The Curley is one of two schools that the Boston school system has abruptly closed this month. Officials also shut down the Henderson Inclusion School last week after its principal was severely beaten by a student and hospitalized. Lower grade students were out of classes for two days, while older students missed three days.
It’s unclear whether Boston will pursue a state waiver for the Henderson.
“Our focus for the Henderson school is on restorative efforts to promote healing and safety within the school community,” a Boston school spokesperson said. “We will follow up with any other decisive actions at a later date.”