Baker presses for in-person learning
'The time to get kids back to school is now,' says Riley
THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION on Friday ramped up pressure on the roughly 23 percent of school districts teaching remotely to return to in-person classes by releasing new metrics that downgraded the risk of COVID-19 in most communities and issuing new guidance suggesting hands-on teaching is safe even in hot-spot areas.
Gov. Charlie Baker said the evidence is clear that in-person teaching is safe. He noted cases in public schools declined this past week and Catholic schools statewide, many of them in high-risk areas, have seen few infections.
“Data collected from school districts across the US, of which we now have several months’ worth, shows schools can open and operate safely in person,” he said.
“We know nothing can take the place of in-person instruction,” said Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley. “The time to get kids back to school is now.”
“I’m seeing very disturbing trends,” she said, noting some of her school-aged patients have gained as much as 20 pounds during the pandemic from being sedentary and not getting highly nutritious meals.
She said pediatric intensive care specialists have said their hospital censuses are consistently showing more hospitalizations for youth suicide attempts than youth COVID-19 patients. She urged schools to reopen in-person.
Jim Peyser, the governor’s secretary of education, said high-needs students and younger children particularly should be back in school because of the structure and services they can access. Summarizing the state’s updated guidance on returning to classrooms, he said: “Districts are expected to prioritize in-person learning across all color-coded categories, unless there is suspected in-school transmission.”
Peyser’s reference to color-coded categories was a nod to the state’s COVID-19 risk map, which classifies communities as red if they are high risk, yellow if they are moderate risk, and green and gray if they are low risk. New metrics released on Friday reset the number of areas listed as red, causing the number to plunge from 121 last week to 16 this week.
Friday’s full-court-press by the administration didn’t sit well with the state’s largest teacher’s union.
“What we heard from the governor today is a complete disconnect,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the 117,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association.
“On one hand, he’s saying it’s too dangerous for us to gather in small groups for Thanksgiving — yet he’s just saying send your kids back to school under all circumstances. Those circumstances have to be determined by every local community,” she said.
Others aren’t pleased with the status quo and want state officials to take a firmer stance on in-person learning.
In a letter to the Legislature’s Education Committee, Larry Simmons, on behalf of Framingham Parents for In-Person Learning, called on Baker and Riley to “force districts to open.”
He noted that school districts in wealthier towns and private schools near Framingham are fully open with no positive cases. “You can’t simply ignore science and stay shut,” Simmons said.
The governor has insisted in the past that final decisions on schools must be made by local officials, but he and his top aides hedged a bit on that front Friday.
“At the department, we have a responsibility and obligation to make sure that folks are following the guidance to the greatest extent possible,” Riley said. “If people start deviating, we’ll address that individually, but we’ll also address what happens locally.”
Riley recently audited Watertown and East Longmeadow’s school districts for keeping students remote.Some educators say they are offended by Riley threatening to audit their districts. Dan Moresco, a teacher in Belmont, sent a letter to the Education Committee decrying what he called “dangerous overreach” by Riley and the state for interfering with the local decision-making they claim to respect.
The Belmont School Committee voted to delay an already approved high school hybrid plan recently. Moresco, in his letter to the Education Committee, said Riley “doubled down on an audit and threatened other restrictions,” even though the distric’s community survey shows that most parents want high schoolers to stay remote.