MCAS exams coming in spring, education officials say

Even schools in ‘red‘ towns urged to do in-person learning

TOP MASSACHUSETTS EDUCATION officials on Tuesday insisted MCAS exams will be held next spring and urged districts to conduct in-person learning even if they are located in communities at high risk for COVID-19 – as long as there is no evidence the transmission is occurring in schools.

Testifying virtually before the Legislature’s Education Committee, state Education Secretary Jim Peyser and education Commissioner Jeff Riley said their guidance to school districts has been updated to reflect that districts are encouraged to remain open even if their community is red on the Baker administration’s color-coded map.

School districts had been asked to review at least three weeks of community COVID-19 data before adjusting learning models. Now the Baker administration officials say three weeks in red is not enough to move to remote learning.

“We are not seeing the spread take place, clustering take place in the schools as initially feared,” said Riley.

“It is increasingly clear that schools are not a source of transmission,” Peyser added, noting that the guidance update is based on data approved by medical professionals.

Both men also said the MCAS exams will go on this spring after being canceled last spring because of COVID-19. Peyser said federal authorities haven’t indicated they plan to grant a waiver to exempt the state from the requirement.

Peyser described the pressure he’s getting from teachers’ unions and other groups to suspend the exam as a “stalking horse,” apparently for their desire to get rid of the test completely.

“In the name of equity and justice, we must do everything we can to provide students with meaningful instruction this year, and that includes MCAS,” said Peyser.

Riley noted that the administration will make major announcements on broadband connectivity and WiFi hotspots for students, especially those in rural areas, in the coming weeks. He said details on a pilot program to dole out more than 2 million COVID-19 tests to schools will be coming soon, as well as a review protocols for school transportation and distancing on buses in order to get more students into the classroom.

According to state data, there have been a total of 622 coronavirus cases reported in schools in the past five weeks. A weekly report posted on Thursdays indicated 129 students and 73 staff tested positive for coronavirus from October 15 to October 21.

In response to a question, Peyser said there are no plans to move to fully remote learning after the Thanksgiving holiday, a time when many families travel. “I’d be concerned if they have a full week of remote after Thanksgiving. We must have as much in-person learning time as possible,” Peyser said.

The officials said in-person education isn’t just important for high-needs students; they said it’s important for all students. Riley said the department is concerned about two school districts that are or were fully remote despite low transmission rates. He said he plans to “audit them and see what’s happening.”

While he didn’t name the two districts, it’s been reported that they are Watertown and East Longmeadow. Watertown recently announced it will transition to hybrid learning this next week.

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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.

The threat of an audit didn’t sit well with Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, who called threats of audits or not getting students back into buildings, “not helpful, especially when everyone knows the audits are generally technical, punitive and not much help.”

“Those who threaten us simply demonize themselves and energize their adversaries,” he said.