Teachers unions and school committee members are pushing back against a move to get students back into the classroom full time at Massachusetts schools.
Elementary and Secondary Commissioner Jeff Riley said Tuesday that it's time to begin the process of resuming in-person learning, citing improving health metrics and mitigation measures in place across the state's districts.
"The evidence on this one is crystal clear and has been for months -- it's safe to teach kids in the classroom, regardless of the community transmission rate, as long as people abide by the protocols," Riley said.
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said Riley's announcement of the plan was "simply a bait-and-switch move to cover up his massive failure around the vaccine, including not having a real plan to get educators vaccinated."
The executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Glenn Koocher, emphasized how many unknowns are still at play: “We don’t know whether the teachers will be vaccinated -- too many unknowns to be able to say this is when you’re going to make that decision and this is when you’re going to be going back to school.”
Riley, who joined Gov. Charlie Baker and Education Secretary James Peyser on Tuesday afternoon to announce the push, told Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members that he plans to ask them in March to give him the authority to determine when hybrid and remote school models no longer count for learning hours, as part of a broader plan to return more students to physical school buildings.
"I think we all agree there's no substitute for in-person learning, especially for kids in elementary school," Baker said. "The best place for kids is in the classroom."
Riley said he would take a "phased approach to returning students into the classrooms, working closely with state health officials and medical experts." He said his plan would focus on elementary school students first, with the initial goal of having them learning in-person five days a week this April.
He told the board he would then plan to phase in middle and high school students by the end of this school year.
Najimy was very critical of the plan from Baker and Riley.
"It's another demonstration of the commissioner's arrogance to create a top-down mandate without having any conversation with the people who are impacted," Najimy said.
Parents would still be able to choose remote learning for their child through the end of the year, Riley said, and there would be a waiver process for districts that might need a more incremental approach.
Najimy argued that the move not only disproportionately affects the most vulnerable communities, but it puts unvaccinated teachers in a vulnerable position.
"If he wants his goal of getting us back into the buildings, give us the added layer of protection of the vaccine," Najimy said.
For Massachusetts school committees, the plan's sudden announcement upended months of planning -- Worcester School Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick said "it throws everybody kind of into chaos."
In Worcester, concerns over ventilation systems and high COVID case levels have kept kids remote since March. And O’Connell Novick said there’s simply not enough room in the buildings to bring all students back, even three feet apart.
“There’s going to be people who are going to complain that somehow it’s the teachers’ fault, there’s going to be parents who demand this and not understand why it isn’t happening,” O’Connell Novick said
Framingham School Committee member Scott Wadland said this undermines the exhaustive work school committees have been doing to tailor a plan to their district’s unique needs and replaces it with a one-size-fits-all plan.
“We have a near 70-page back-to-school plan that deals with COVID. It was arrived at through extensive negotiation and discussion with our teachers’ union and with our local public health officials,” Wadland said.
“For us, being a rural district, the busing is dangerous,” said David Young with the Pioneer Valley Regional School Committee.
Small or large, many districts have concerns over COVID transmission. Young said it’s not worth the risk.
“I will admit that there are deficiencies in the hybrid model and in distance learning, and that it is not for everyone,” he said, “but getting COVID is not for anyone.”
School committees still don’t have any real specifics on the state’s plan to bring students back five days a week, so they’re left waiting like the rest of us for another week or two before DESE releases the full plan.
Educators aren't unanimous on the issue. Adam Cole, a teacher in Needham, is in favor of going back full time. He said kids have lost a lot this year.
"They're losing their spark a little bit," he said. "They're losing their motivation."
"I don't believe that unions are negotiating right now for what's best for the children," argued Beth Humberd of Bring Kids Back MA.