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.”

Dr. Mary Beth Miotto, vice president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, trumpeted the benefits of in-person learning and said the health risks of remote learning are very real.

“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.

“The commissioner believes that the data is clear-cut about school transmission, but most people don’t see it as clear cut as the governor and the commissioner do,” 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.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

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.