Board of Ed gives Riley the authority over learning models

On Friday afternoon, an 8: 3 vote by the Council for Primary and Secondary Education paved the way for the state education commissioner to finally remove distance and hybrid learning models from the table for local school districts.

The board approved emergency regulations giving Commissioner Jeff Riley the power to decide when full and partial distance education will no longer count towards student learning time requirements, stepping into the next phase of schooling during a pandemic in Massachusetts.

“We’re at an interesting time. We’ve seen our numbers drop dramatically,” Riley said. “We have seen vaccines and the promise of vaccines increase dramatically, and we believe now is the time to start getting our kids back to school in a stronger way. The medical community believes that, and I think the time is right. come to make that call. “

Riley said he wanted to continue a phased approach towards returning to full in-person learning, starting with elementary students next month, and he acknowledged on Friday that many districts have started to take action on their own. to phase out distance and hybrid education.

“Next fall, we anticipate a full in-person comeback at all levels,” said Riley.

As of February 12, nearly 80 percent of Massachusetts school districts were providing at least one in-person instruction to students through an in-person or hybrid model. Many larger urban school districts have yet to revert to in-person learning, and Riley has estimated that 300,000 students are enrolled in districts that are currently totally remote.

Parents will be able to choose to continue distance education for their students until the end of this school year, and Riley said districts will be able to request waivers in certain circumstances. He gave the examples of a totally isolated district that needs a more phased approach or a district that starts with bringing only Kindergarten to Grade 4 students back to full-time because their fifth grade classes are running out. found in another building with older classes.

Board member Paymon Rouhanifard supported the new regulations but said he was “disappointed that there is no timetable” to bring middle and high schools back and that “we are not pushing stronger, because we are lagging behind the country on this issue “.

“And I really believe, and I realize it’s unpopular to say, but we’ve failed a generation of students in the Commonwealth and in our country,” he said.

The three members who voted against the change all hold seats representing defined constituencies – Student Representative Jasper Coughlin, Parent Representative Mary Ann Stewert and Union Representative Darlene Lombos.

Lombos said she voted against the plan because “this is the first time we’ve seen it” and she was unable to discuss the details with “everyone I’m supposed to represent”.

Stewart said the still high number of COVID-19 cases and the unknown trajectory of the new viral variants means “it is not advisable to go ahead just yet.”

Education Secretary James Peyser said now is the right time to act because “we are actually at a point where a lot has fallen into place,” including a broad base of research on effective mitigation measures, better knowledge of the impacts of distance learning, a pooled testing program for COVID-19 in which many schools are participating, and the ongoing deployment of the vaccine.

Coughlin, a high school student at Billerica Memorial High School, said that because student mental health is a priority for him, he was “honestly 100% sure that I was going to vote yes” but had since heard from teachers and administrators who said they “were blinded by this and I have very serious doubts” about the logistics.

Riley said officials have designed a system “that gives parents maximum flexibility, but also gives districts the option, if they think a waiver is needed, to apply.”

Board member Matt Hills asked Riley to “be very, very careful” to “open too many exemptions.”

“There are always problems, these are real problems – no school committee, no superintendent is saying, I just don’t want to do that, because. There are problems, there are problems,” Hills said. “The way to overcome these problems is to force the compromises that will allow us to accomplish our highest priority, which is to open schools.”

Board members said they received a thousand or more email comments ahead of the meeting, a volume of testimony that reflects intense interest in distance and in-person learning issues, differing preferences individual families and tensions around local control over education.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and other business groups, including the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, the Massachusetts High Technology Council, and the Springfield and Worcester Chambers of Commerce, sent a letter expressing their support for the Riley’s shot. The groups said it was now time to “go back to the classroom to begin the hard work of reclaiming the lost learning”.

“There is no substitute for in-person learning and it should be vigorously pursued as a preferable first option for students,” the letter said. “Returning to school is an essential step in ensuring equal educational opportunities.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy urged the board to reject the settlement, saying in her written comments that state and federal governments should play a supporting role in providing resources and clear direction to districts, but leaving municipalities “the final say on important reopening decisions based on the needs of their students and educators and the conditions in their buildings and communities.” “

“What’s good for a small town in Berkshire County may not be good for a big town in the Pioneer Valley,” said Najimy.

Somerville school committee member Andre Green made a similar point during the public comment period of the meeting, asking council and Riley to work with local city district officials “rather than trying to lock us up. in a box the size of a suburb ”.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been pushing for schools to repopulate their classrooms, said in a statement he was “grateful for the support and appearance of the board.[s] I look forward to returning all students to in-person learning soon. “

“The data clearly shows that students learn safely in the classroom and that this is vital for their emotional and intellectual health,” he said.

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