The 8 to 3 vote followed passionate public testimony about whether the state was usurping local control — or whether, as others argued, state officials needed to intervene to address the deteriorating mental health of students and significant learning losses.
Board members asked a panel of medical experts a range of questions, including about the safety risks variants presented in school settings and the capacity of schools to address mental health issues.
In the end, board members said they felt a duty to step in.
Momentum to reopen schools received a boost two days ago, when Governor Charlie Baker, in accordance with a directive from the Biden administration, announced educators and other school employees would become eligible for vaccinations next week. Pharmacies, such as CVS, have already begun to give shots to teachers under a federal program. It will likely take more than a month for teachers to get their first shots, but the state and the federal governments are not requiring inoculation for reopening schools.
The state board’s vote comes one year after the pandemic forced schools across the state to shut down their buildings and pushed learning onto the Internet, which has caused achievement gaps between affluent and disadvantaged students to widen. Many low-income students have struggled with inadequate Internet service, subpar computers, and parents working front-line jobs that increased their exposure to the coronavirus.
“As we think about getting back to a more traditional way of learning, I think we need to recognize that we, as a board and as a state, need to focus on the gaps and unfinished learning that have been created through this pandemic, and we really need to have a focus on equity and working with those students who have been most impacted,” Riley told the board Friday.
Meanwhile, the shift to online learning has created social isolation, anxiety, and depression among students of all economic backgrounds. And it has tested parents’ patience. Many are juggling working at home and overseeing their children’s schooling simultaneously, and many feel they lack the skills to help their kids out with their studies.
Scores of parents lobbied the state board to approve the commissioner’s proposal. A petition by Bring Kids Back MA, a statewide parents’ organization, garnered more than 10,000 signatures urging the board to give Riley the power he sought.
“The science is clear, the data is in, and children can no longer suffer at the hands of local control and inconsistent educational opportunities,” the group said in a statement.
About 20 percent of the state’s districts currently provide remote-only learning, serving approximately 300,000 students, or nearly half of the state’s public school enrollment, according to state data collected last month. The remaining districts are providing in-person instruction mostly on a part-time basis.
Some local officials say preserving local control is critical.
“The situation with the virus is different in every single district,” said Roberto Jiménez Rivera, a Chelsea School Committee member. “We need to be listening to the people who have been most impacted by the virus before making decisions about what communities should be doing.”
Rami Bridge, president of the Somerville Educators Union, told the board Friday that local control of school districts is a key principle of Massachusetts’ education system, and that Riley does not know the unique challenges each district faces.
“Whatever our opinions on the science and politics of school during the pandemic, you must not allow his single perspective to outweigh the expertise of thousands of elected school committee members, district administrators, local public health officials, custodial staff, nurses, medical professionals, community members, and educators who have been working tirelessly to make the best choices for our communities,” he said.
“We know what’s best for our community, and Commissioner Riley does not.”
Riley intends to create a waiver process for districts who say they can’t comply with a full return. The criteria for approval have not been released yet.
Leslee Parker-Sproul, who spoke at Friday’s meeting on behalf of the parent group Voices for Boston Public School Families, said she and other parents are concerned about districts’ use of the waiver process.
“We are concerned that urban districts, such as Boston, will apply for the waiver. These urban districts are where children need access to school the most, where they’ve been without school for the longest, and where inequities are the most glaring,” she said.
To get districts to reopen buildings full time, the commissioner plans to change state regulations. Riley will phase out provisions — added during the pandemic — that allow remote learning to count toward state-mandated instructional hours. Every public school district is required to provide 900 instructional hours a year in elementary schools and 990 in high schools.
Riley said he will consult medical and health experts in reopening schools. Parents would retain the right to keep their children at home and learn remotely.
Nearly half of Massachusetts schools now have pool testing available for students and staff, Riley also told the board.
Several superintendents have faulted the commissioner’s proposal for lacking specifics, such as how to effectively balance a full return of students while also having enough space to practice social distancing, especially during lunch periods. Most districts have been providing 6 feet of physical distancing, but state guidelines allow districts to go as low as 3 feet and recently removed social distancing requirements for school buses.
“We need the details as soon as possible for planning purposes,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “There are a sizable number of districts for a variety of unique circumstances that need more time and specific information.”
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