Ed Commissioner Jeff Riley pushes in-person learning

Ultimate decision will be up to local school committees

MASSACHUSETTS EDUCATION Commissioner Jeffrey Riley is strongly urging local schools to open in person this fall, pushing back against state teachers’ unions who are calling for the school year to begin remotely.

“The word is clear…pediatricians say now is the time to start getting our kids back in school,” Riley said Tuesday, referring to a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics supporting a return to in-person schooling.

Riley, speaking at a Zoom panel discussion organized by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is relying heavily on medical advice in advising schools to teach children in person as much as possible – and to bring special needs students back full-time if they can.

Riley said doctors are worried about problems like suicidal ideation, depression, domestic abuse, and food scarcity when children do not have school as a safe place to go to during the day. Riley also mentioned a study by Johns Hopkins University that listed Massachusetts as one of 17 states that is ready to open schools based on its low levels of virus transmission.

“The doctors are very clear that all the negative effects of kids not being in school are much worse at this time, particularly given the data we have that (virus) transmission is low,” Riley said.

Riley said remote learning is not comparable to learning in person, and there are educational costs to not going back. “It’s nearly impossible to teach reading over Zoom to kindergarten and first graders,” he said.

Both the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers have called for schools to begin remotely. The teachers’ unions say many schools lack adequate facilities to keep students and teachers safe, without things like hot water, proper ventilation, or space for social distancing.

“It’s become clear in the last few weeks that an in-person return to schools would unacceptably put the health and safety of our students, their families, and educators at risk,” AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos said in a statement.

DESE is requiring every district to develop three models: an in-person model, a hybrid model, and a fully remote model. The hybrid model would have students split their time between remote and in-person learning. By August 10, each school district will have to tell DESE which plan they will pursue in September.

While DESE put out mandatory safety requirements and guidelines, it will be up to each local school committee to decide which of the three models to pursue – although they will have to offer a remote-only option to any family that wants it. (And if the virus surges, state officials could decide to shut down schools again, as they did in March.)

Riley told the Chamber of Commerce that so far he is hearing from the “vast majority of superintendents” that they are interested in a hybrid or in-person model, rather than a fully remote one.

The Chamber of Commerce discussion did not include any teachers, but it had as panelists Boston schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius, Lynn superintendent Patrick Tutwiler and Ingrid Tucker, who heads the private Cambridge Montessori School.

Cassellius said Boston cannot return to a full in-person model because the size of the buildings and the need to have fewer students on buses makes that impossible. Boston plans to use a hybrid model where students are in school several days a week and learning remotely the other days. In Boston, where half the schools were built before 1940, the district has provided guidance that schools without HVAC systems must leave windows open. But Cassellius said that has meant going through each classroom and fixing and replacing windows. Boston also had to clean school bathrooms, fix hot water systems, and order cleaning supplies.

Cassellius acknowledged that as districts try new teaching methods to adapt to the hybrid model, “we’ll probably be failing at some things,” and officials will try to learn from what fails.

In contrast, Tucker said, a smaller school like hers can plan to return in-person to accommodate the needs of working parents. With three buildings and smaller enrollment, she said, the school can follow state regulations on social distancing. Two of the three buildings have relatively new HVAC systems, and the school is working with a private cleaning company on the best ways to deep clean the building and purify inside air. She said that does raise budgetary concerns, with lower enrollment and a lack of access to state funding.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Many of the questions attendees asked of Riley related to cost and whether public money will be available to schools to do things like upgrade HVAC systems, buy students laptops, or hire more school nurses. Riley said some money is available from prior federal stimulus packages, but the state hopes Congress will act to pass another one. “We really are relying on a fourth federal stimulus package which we hope will come through,” Riley said.

All the administrators stressed that school will feel different this year, even if it is held in person. For example, Tutwiler said classroom layouts are likely to reflect how classrooms looked 50 years ago, with desks lined up at a distance from one other, rather than more modern set-ups that emphasize group work and collaboration.