An 8-3 vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Friday afternoon cleared the way for the state’s education commissioner to eventually take remote and hybrid learning models off the table for local school districts.
The board approved emergency regulations giving Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to decide when full and partial remote schooling will no longer count toward student learning time requirements, taking a step towards the next phase of pandemic-era schooling in Massachusetts.
“We are at an interesting time. We have seen our numbers go way down,” Riley said. “We’ve seen the vaccines and the promise of the vaccines go way up, and we think now is the time to begin to move our children back to school more robustly. The medical community believes that, and I think now is the time to make that call.”
Riley has said he wants to pursue a gradual approach toward returning to full in-person learning, starting with elementary schoolers next month, and he acknowledged Friday that many districts have started making moves on their own to phase out remote and hybrid instruction.
“Next fall, we’re planning for a full return in-person across all grade levels,” Riley said.
As of Feb. 12, nearly 80 percent of Massachusetts school districts were providing at least some in-person instruction to students through an in-person or hybrid model. Many larger, urban school districts have not yet returned to in-person learning, and Riley has estimated that 300,000 students are enrolled in districts that are currently fully remote.
Parents will be able to choose to continue with remote instruction for their students through the end of this school year, and Riley said districts will be able to apply for waivers in certain circumstances. He gave the examples of a fully remote district that needs a more incremental approach or a district that starts by bringing back just K-4 students full-time because their fifth grade classrooms are in another building with older grades.
Board member Paymon Rouhanifard supported the new regulations but said he was “disappointed that there’s not a timeline” for bringing back middle and high schools and that “we’re not pushing harder, because we are lagging the country on this issue.”
“And I really believe, and I realize this is unpopular to say, but that we have 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 labor representative Darlene Lombos.
Lombos said she voted against the plan because “it’s the first time we’re seeing it” and she hadn’t been able to discuss details with “all the people that I’m supposed to be representing.”
Stewart said continued elevated COVID-19 cases numbers and the unknown trajectory of new viral variants mean “it’s ill-advised to jump ahead just now.”
Education Secretary James Peyser said that this was the right moment to act because “we’re actually at a point where a lot of things have come into place,” including an expanded research base about which mitigation measures work, greater knowledge about the impacts of remote learning, a pool testing program for COVID-19 screening that many schools are partcipating in, and the ongoing vaccine rollout.
Coughlin, a Billerica Memorial High School senior, said that because student mental health is a priority for him, he had been “honestly 100 percent sure I was going to vote yes” but had since heard from teachers and administrators who said they “were blindsided by this and have some very serious doubts” about the logistics.
Riley said that officials crafted a system “that gives parents maximum flexibility, but also gives districts the ability, if they think that a waiver is necessary, to apply.”
Board member Matt Hills asked Riley to “be really really careful” about “opening up too many waivers.
“There’s always issues, they’re genuine issues — no school committee, no superintendent is saying, I just don’t want to do this, because. There’s issues, there’s problems,” Hills said. “The way to get through these problems is to force the trade-offs that will enable us to accomplish our highest priority, which is opening schools.”
Board members said they received a thousand or more emailed comments ahead of the meeting, a volume of testimony that reflects intense interest in issues around remote and in-person learning, the differing preferences of individual families, and tensions around local control in education.
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and other business groups including Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Massachusetts High Technology Council and the Springfield and Worcester chambers of commerce sent in a letter voicing support for Riley’s plan. The groups said it’s now the time “to return to the classroom to get the hard work of recovering lost learning underway.”
“There is no replacement for in-person learning and it should be pursued vigorously as a first and preferable option for students,” the letter said. “Returning to the classroom is an essential step toward ensuring equal educational opportunities.”
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy urged the board to reject the regulations, saying in her written comments that state and federal governments should play a supportive role by providing resources and clear guidance to districts but allowing municipalities “the final say over 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 city in the Pioneer Valley,” Najimy said.
Somerville School Committee member Andre Green made a similar point during the meeting’s public comment period, asking the board and Riley to work with the local officials in urban districts “rather than trying to jam us into a suburban-size box.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been pushing for schools to repopulate their classrooms, said in a statement that he is “grateful for the Board’s support and look[s] forward to getting all students back to in person learning soon.”
“The data is clear that students learning in the classroom can be done safely and it is vital to their emotional and intellectual health,” he said.