GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Thursday continued to push schools to bring students back in person while denying allegations by the state’s largest teachers union that his administration is “bullying” local districts.
“If you are a low-risk district, and you’ve been a low-risk district for eight weeks, and you have no plan to return to in-person learning when most people in education and public health and the pediatric communities all believe that in-person learning, especially for young kids, is a critical part of their educational and social development, we want to know what your plan is to get back,” Baker said. “I don’t think that’s bullying. I think it’s a perfectly appropriate question to ask on behalf of people in those communities and particularly the kids.”
In August, Baker released a color-coded map indicating levels of COVID-19 transmission in each community, and he has been pushing communities with low levels of transmission to open their schools. But teachers’ unions have pushed back, saying many schools are not prepared to safely reopen.
Last Friday, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley wrote a letter to 16 school districts that have low levels of virus transmission but are starting the school year remotely. Riley asked the schools to provide information about their plans to return to in-person schooling. He wrote that their responses “may trigger an audit to assess overall efforts to provide in-person instruction” and to ensure their remote learning is consistent with state guidelines.
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy put out a statement accusing Riley of bullying. “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,” Najimy said.
Riley, at a State House press conference that Baker called to focus on back-to-school issues, was asked what happens if one of the 16 districts – or others he reaches out to in the future – do not bring students back in person. Riley declined to be specific, saying he will wait to receive the districts’ written plans, then assess next steps. But he said it could include “an audit of the entire school district,” which would cover things like their remote learning plan, curriculum, hours of instruction, and how the district is serving special needs students and English language learners.
Baker continued to urge districts to use the state’s color-coded map, which is updated weekly, when deciding what format of education they should pursue. With some districts postponing students’ returns due to student parties, Baker urged districts to make decisions based on long-term trends rather than one week of data.
Baker made an emotional appeal by citing pleas from parents of special needs students who have said their children’s development is regressing without in-person education. He also spotlighted the experience of the Quincy schools, which started with in-person summer school for special needs students, then brought elementary school students back in person, and plans to return students to the middle and high schools in October.
Riley said he recognizes the possibility of a second spike in infections, and urged school districts to take advantage of low COVID rates now as long as they can. HE said a school district working remotely now could be could be forced to remain remote later in the year and will realize at that time that “we could have had kids back in for a couple of months or even six months, and we missed that window.”