State looking to force school reopenings

Riley seeking new authority to push districts back to classroom learning 

TAKING DIRECT AIM at Massachusetts school districts and teachers unions that have been reluctant to return to in-person instruction, state education commissioner Jeff Riley said he wants to use state education regulations to push districts to bring students back to the classroom.

Riley said Tuesday that he wants to see elementary grade students back in school five days a week in April, with older grades possibly to follow after that.

Adopting a much more aggressive posture than state officials have taken in a debate that has divided the education community, Riley said he’ll seek authorization to deem remote instruction not eligible to be counted toward state-required “structured learning time” hours. The proposal, unveiled Tuesday morning to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, would give Riley leverage in pushing districts back into in-person classes, something he, Education Secretary Jim Peyser, and Gov. Charlie Baker have been urging more schools to do for months. 

“We continue to see in-person instruction being delivered safely across the Commonwealth,” said Riley. “It is time to get our kids back to school more robustly.” 

Baker voiced strong support for the plan at a press briefing Tuesday afternoon with Riley and Peyser. “Our administration has been clear for months that the best place for kids is in the classroom,” said Baker, who has pointed to evidence of little in-school transmission of coronavirus, particularly in younger grades. 

Riley said the goal would be to have all elementary school students back in classrooms full-time by April, with the plan “likely extending to middle school grades later in the school year and possibly high schools as well.” He said parents could still opt and have their children learn remotely through the end of the school year, and said there would also be waivers available to some districts to allow them to ease more slowly back to full in-person learning.

Riley cited overall declining coronavirus rates in the state, the rollout of vaccines, and evidence of little transmission of the virus among younger children in announcing his plans. 

About 80 percent of the state’s school districts are now offering fully in-person or hybrid instruction. The remaining 20 percent of districts are fully remote, but because they include many larger districts, they educate about 400,000 of the more than 900,000 public schools students statewide.

The issue of school reopenings has been among the most contentious debates unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of US school children were sent home last March, when the pandemic first broke out, and many have yet to return to a classroom. 

Educators, physicians, and mental health experts say school closures are exacting an enormous toll on young people’s learning and emotional wellbeing. Teachers unions have pushed back against some calls for school reopening, citing the risks to educators and students of virus transmission in classrooms. 

Riley’s announcement got a mixed reception from local officials and teachers unions, with even some of the praise coming layered with complaints that the state has, until now, left districts largely struggling on their own to figure out how to manage the pandemic. 

Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said district leaders have been urging more direction from state officials since the pandemic began. “Superintendents from day 1, way back in March and April, were looking for more consistency [in guidelines] across the state rather than leaving every district on its own. That’s created a tremendous amount of conflict.” 

Scott said many districts are already moving toward bringing back more students. “So the fact that the commissioner is moving in this direction — I think that’s a welcome sign that might help districts that are moving in that direction or want to make that decision,” he said.

Robert Baldwin, superintendent of the Fairhaven schools, said it’s helpful to have a prod from the state to get schools reopened. “I’m extremely encouraged by his leadership to at least begin the process to get more students into the classroom,” Baldwin said of Riley’s announcement. “When it comes from someone above, it gives you cover to try to move in the direction that you think is best for kids.” 

First- and second-grade students in the small South Coast district have been in classrooms full-time since September, but students in third grade and above have been following a hybrid model in which they alternate a week in school and a week learning from home. 

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said the announcement adds “another level of frustration and bewilderment” to local school planning that communities have had to do on their own. “Neither Commissioner Riley nor Secretary Peyser nor Gov. Baker has worked collaboratively to help us figure it out.” 

Keri Rodrigues, head of the advocacy group Massachusetts Parents United, applauded the news. “The time has come for our children to return to buildings utilizing health and safety guidelines from public health officials instead of engaging in constant goalpost changing while the best interests of our children hang in the balance,” she said in a statement.

The state’s two big teachers unions, however, were sharply critical of the proposal. 

“The timing of this announcement is no coincidence,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It’s simply a bait and switch by the governor, looking to take the focus off the massive failure of his vaccine rollout, including having no plan for vaccinating educators.” Najimy called the move “another demonstration of [the state education department’s] arrogance in delivering top-down mandates,” without “understanding conditions in schools or having discussions with the people affected by it.”

Baker scoffed at the suggestion that the school reopening effort is designed to deflect attention from the vaccine plan. Notwithstanding last week’s crash of the state vaccine sign-up website, he said Massachusetts is now No. 1 for first-dose vaccinations per capita among the 24 largest states with more than 5 million residents, and 10th among all states. 

“I would hate to distract from that information because that’s a really good story,” Baker said.

Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said in a statement that educators are eager to get back to classrooms, but that requires “investing in the school safety measures we’ve been demanding for almost a year: rapid surveillance testing, ventilation upgrades to prevent transmission, and vaccinations for educators and for our students’ vulnerable family members.” She charged that the Baker administration has “prioritized indoor dining, casinos, and other venues that lead to high levels of community spread, rather than focusing on curtailing community transmission and reopening school safely with surveillance testing and ventilation upgrades.” 

The Massachusetts Association of School Committees said school reopening should be left to local control. “These decisions should remain in the hands of the people who are overseeing individual schools and school districts: school superintendents and school committees in consultation with parents and community members,” the organization said in a statement. 

The power play by state officials represents a workaround to the strong local control of schools in Massachusetts. State leaders cannot directly mandate school reopenings, but Riley is trying to force the issue using the regulatory levers he controls. 

The state education board previously amended school regulations to allow remote instruction and hybrid models to count toward the number of instruction hours mandated by state law. “At some point, as health metrics continue to improve, we will need to take the remote and hybrid learning models off the table and return to a traditional school format,” Riley said in introducing his plan.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Riley said he will bring a formal proposal to the state education board in the next week or two that would authorize him to determine when the pandemic-driven remote learning models can no longer count toward required instruction hours.