Riley presses districts that are starting year with remote learning  

Commissioner ‘concerned’ that ‘green’ districts are opening with no in-person classes 

MASSACHUSETTS EDUCATION COMMISSIONER Jeff Riley is escalating his push to convince school districts to bring students back in person, asking 16 districts for more information about their plans – and threatening them with a potential audit of their efforts to provide in-person education. 

Riley wrote to 16 districts that have consistently ranked green or gray on the state’s color-coded map, which indicate low rates of COVID19, that chose to start school remotely. 

Given your community’s designation of green or gray, I am concerned that the school committee has voted to keep most students learning remotely for the start of the 2020-21 school year,” Riley wrote, pointing to state guidance that recommends these districts bring students back in person. 

“In light of the stark discrepancy between local public health data and your reopening plan, I am requesting a timeline by which you anticipate providing in-person instruction for the majority of your students including in-person instruction for vulnerable populations,” Riley continued. He wrote that their responses “may trigger an audit to assess overall efforts to provide in-person instruction” and to ensure their remote learning program is consistent with state guidelines 

The districts that received the letter were: Amesbury, Belmont, Berkshire Arts and Technology, Bourne, Boxford, East Longmeadow, Gardner, Gill-Montague, HawlemontHoosac Valley Regional, Manchester Essex Regional, Mohawk Trail, Pittsfield, Provincetown, Watertown, and West Springfield. 

For the last couple of months, Baker administration officials have sharply disagreed with the state’s teachers’ unions over in-person educationGov. Charlie Baker has urged districts to bring students back in person in all communities with relatively low rates of COVID-19, while the unions have been pressuring districts to start remotely until more safety concerns have been addressed. 

Around 70 percent of districts told the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in August that they planned to bring children back in person, almost all of them using a hybrid model where students are in school some days and home some days. But the remaining districts planned to begin fully remotely. Some districts’ plans may have changed since then due to ongoing bargaining with teachers’ unions and the virus’s spread. 

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the letter seems in line with the message Riley has been sending for weeks. “He has on weekly calls with superintendents been very consistent in saying that if you’re in green or gray that you should be thinking about moving towards some form of in-person,” Scott said. 

But Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, called the letter “adult bullying.” “There’s enough happening, and people didn’t need to get that kind of a scolding,” Koocher said. “Districts are very hard pressed to do what they think is best. They’re engaged in a very delicate relationship with their unions, some of which are more reasonable than others.” 

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teacher union, offered similar characterization of the letter. “The Baker administration’s strategy of seeking to bully communities into adopting more in-person learning or facing ‘audits’ by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is one more example of the failed leadership the state has shown in handling public education during the pandemic,” said MTA president Merrie Najimy in a statement.

John Portz, chair of the Watertown School Committee, said school officials there had a 70-person task force on school reopening that worked all summer. One Zoom meeting had 500 people attend. They ultimately decided that starting remotely for a month, with high-needs students returning in person, then beginning to transition to a hybrid plan would be the best model for the community. “We felt like that was the best for our circumstances and understood it to be a local decision,” Portz said. 

Portz said district officials are still improving school buildings to handle virus concerns. Starting remotely let the district minimize the risk to students while developing a remote educational program that works in case school has to return to remote learning.  

Portz said the state’s color-coded map and metrics came out only after Watertown already made its decision to start remotely. “If they wanted to give that kind of direction, having some of that a little bit earlier might have been helpful,” he said.  

Amesbury Superintendent Jared Fulgoni said he spoke to Riley and does not see the state’s position as threatening. “While some interpreted his letter as threatening, he really was more interested in better understanding the decision making process that Amesbury was using,” Fulgoni wrote in an email. 

Meet the Author

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.

Fulgoni said Amesbury made its decision to start remotely because it is a border bedroom community with teachers coming from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. “While Amesbury is ‘green’ we can’t just look at Amesbury’s metric,” Fulgoni said. “We recognize that people work in Boston, shop in Haverhill, go to the doctor in Methuen and maybe get their car fixed in Lawrence, etc.  We have to look at not just where our students live, but the impact that the surrounding communities have on us.” Fulgoni said he is hopeful that the district’s decision to start school remotely “is part of the reason that our community remains in the ‘green.’” 

Among the communities that received the letter, some are already planning to move to more in-person learning. Hoosac Regional School District in the Berkshires, for example, plans to move to a hybrid model by the end of October. Some districts plan to open their buildings within weeks to high-needs students. But East Longmeadow, for example, voted to keep remote learning in place until January 2021.