Lack of leadership on school reopenings

Baker should have started earlier with facts, science

A WEEK AFTER school committees began making decisions for reopening schools, a day after the plans were originally due to the state, Gov. Charlie Baker released a map to help guide their decision-making. It’s the latest move in what has turned out to be the Commonwealth’s embarrassing lack of leadership on school reopening.

Baker and Education Commissioner Jeff Riley realized last week they might have a problem as school districts began deciding on reopening school. At a Zoom meeting with the Boston Chamber of Commerce, Shira Schoenberg reported that “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.”

A few days later, Baker, also responding to the teachers unions, remarked, “There are many communities in the state that are in very good shape when it comes to their COVID rates, and there are a bunch that have work to do. I think to wipe away the idea, to say that everyone should go remote, first of all, the facts don’t support it, the data doesn’t support it, and the science doesn’t support it, and I’ll leave it at that.”

Baker shouldn’t have left it at that. In fact, he should have started with it.

The Baker administration has been asleep at the wheel for most of the summer. The governor  and Riley clearly expected most districts to choose some form of in-person learning, yet they did next to nothing to help school districts make their decisions.

Riley required districts to develop three plans for a return to school: in-person, hybrid, and remote learning. Initial guidance emphasized “the safe return of as many students as possible to in-person school settings to maximize learning and address our students’ holistic needs.”

This guiding principle is necessary but insufficient. Is a school safe if there is a COVID outbreak and a teacher or paraprofessional becomes sick and dies? As William Burkhead, the superintendent of the Scituate Public Schools, noted: “Either way, your decisions are harming the people you are hired to protect.”

Local decisions on opening school are made by concerned people trying to balance perceived risks. As a former selectman, my sympathy lies with the school committees. They work hard for no money. In East Longmeadow, where I teach, the school committee chose to open remotely. Some parents have already protested the decision.

Meet the Author

Mark L Bail

English teacher, East Longmeadow High School
The Baker administration’s most recent guidelines have undercut the school committee’s decision and they guarantee that, in spite of good intentions, the school committee will continue, as Burkhead describes it, “to swim in shark-infested waters.” Meanwhile, the rest of us will live with unnecessary uncertainty and increased anxiety.

Mark L. Bail has been teaching high school English for 27 years at East Longmeadow High School.