EVERYONE AGREES children learn best in the classroom, but not every community is convinced it can  be done safely when COVID-19 cases are growing within their borders. 

“You know, for decades, they’ve been telling us what to do, micromanaging us, giving us regulations. Now all of a sudden, they say, “well, you want local control. You want it, we’ll give it to you; manage this thing,” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. 

Koocher and Dr. Mary Beth Miotto, vice president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, joined The Codcast to talk about why they believe in-person learning may be the best way to go, but not with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Koocher says that school districts have embraced their sudden newfound autonomy, making the best decisions they can based off of the evidence they have. “But sometimes, it flies in the face of people’s other agendas besides just public health,” he said.  

The backdrop is a state where there are over 2,000 new cases of COVID-19 daily. On Friday, November 6, Gov. Charlie Baker released new metrics that downgraded the risk of COVID-19 in most communities and issued new guidance suggesting hands-on teaching is safe even in hot-spot areas. 

Some union officials and parents are worried about sending their kids to school with community-based cases increasing, and have pushed back. Koocher lauded Baker’s measured approach, but said that school committees have to take these increasing numbers into account week to week.  

“It looks like we could be back to where we were in May and June, and that’s a bit frightening. And I think that even changes the discussion from one we would have had last Friday,” he said.  

Miotto backed Baker the day the new guidance was issued. She says it’s safe to reopen schools. 

While Baker, Education Secretary Jim Peyser, and Department of Secondary and Elementary CommissionerJeff Riley say they’re giving districts independence, Riley is also saying that school districts that aren’t properly assessing data and continue to remain remote may be audited, as East Longmeadowand Watertown recently were.

Koocher said his organization isn’t taking those threats that seriously. “This was a statement that the department had to make to show that we’re prepared to take action, even though they don’t have the authority to do so,” he said. 

Koocher said the focus should instead be on districts where health metrics may not be the reason why schools are not reopening in-person.  

“If the unions refuse to go back into school because their teachers don’t want to go back into school, and it’s not a health reason, if you can find illegitimacy in those arguments, then the state has some authority in coming in and giving a directive,” he said. 

For Miotto, the best way forward would be to educate families about the health data–something she said is lacking. She says she hears “fear” when she talks to Worcester families in her daily job as a pediatrician.  

“There is a lot of information, and we need to do better at talking about good data,” she said, noting that the mental health of children at home is deteriorating without the services in-school learning provides. “We have more admissions in some hospitals forsuicide attempts in children than for COVID,” said Miotto.  

Some families with essential or low-income workers also don’t have the privilege of parents staying at home with their kids to guide their online learning. One parent she knows doesn’t have the bandwidth to sit with her second grader, who has ADHD, all day.