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Baker admin. draws fire over school reopening

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Baker admin. draws fire over school reopening
Edward Everett Elementary School in Dorchester. PHOTO: Isabel-Leon, Mayor's office

Two weeks ago, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley mandated that Massachusetts school districts return to five days a week of in-person instruction, noting that the state would stop counting remote learning hours toward the 900 hours of instruction schools are required to provide.

Teachers unions, who have been pushing for school staff to receive vaccinations before students return to schools, hit back at Riley and the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, who had rebuffed the unions’ requests.

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley. PHOTO: Joshua Quarles, Governor's Office

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley. PHOTO: Joshua Quarles, Governor’s Office

Last Thursday, after union representatives met with administration officials, a senior advisor to the governor blasted the unions in a statement sent to the Boston Globe, accusing them of attempting to take vaccines away from the sickest, oldest and most vulnerable residents in Massachusetts.

Teachers union officials, who had met with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders last Thursday morning, countered in a statement that they did not want the state to divert vaccines from other high-needs groups.

“We suggested, instead, that some of the doses designated for educators via the mass vaccination sites be sent to local communities so they could be administered to school employees efficiently and effectively at the local level, with facilitation by firefighters and nurses,” read the statement put out by the Boston Teachers Union, The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts and the Mass. AFL-CIO.

State Sen. Becca Rausch of Needham wrote a letter to Baker and Sudders, signed by 48 legislators, that urged the administration to implement plans to vaccinate all school staff before students return. The letter calls on the state to adopt vaccination plans backed by organizations representing educators and school staff.

By Friday, Baker had not responded to the letter, Rausch told the Banner.

Rausch noted that teachers have for months been asking for priority in vaccinations.

“I do think it’s really important to very clearly state the thing the governor seems to forget: They could have vaccinated teachers already,” Rausch said. “They could have made different choices at various points along the way.”

Baker’s spat with the teachers unions is the latest development in a contentious relationship his administration has had with teachers unions. Baker squared off against the unions in 2016 when he backed Ballot Question 2, which would have lifted the cap on charter school expansion, a move the unions and municipal officials argued would have diverted public resources away from school districts.

Public school supporters saw Baker’s backing of the ballot question as part of his administration’s push to privatize public services. Now, some see the same intent behind the administration’s hiring of private contractors to provide vaccinations, despite the fact that public health departments in communities across the state have worked together since 2001 to create a blueprint for providing mass vaccinations. The administration has spent $10 million on two private contractors so far.

An overreach of authority?

Beyond the vaccination issue, Riley’s order to a return to in-person learning has raised questions of whether the education commissioner is overreaching state authority.

Worcester School Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick argued last week in a letter to legislators that Riley did not have the authority to overrule local school districts that have opted for fully-remote or hybrid classes, nor to discard U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance that schools maintain six feet of distance between students.

“We appear to have taken the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts and made it a state receivership district over the course of a week, as the Commissioner has now claimed authority well in excess of that granted him by the laws you have passed,” O’Connell Novick wrote.

Riley’s order requires elementary students to return to in-person learning by April 5. Middle school students will return April 28. A date for high school students to return has not yet been determined.

Under Riley’s order, parents would be allowed to opt for continued remote learning through the end of this school year. Districts may also apply for a waiver to allow for a more gradual approach to in-person learning.

O’Connell Novick noted that the rules about remote learning not being counted do not apply to the state’s two fully remote online charter schools and that the exemption for parents presents a contradiction reminiscent of the theoretical physics problem called “Schrödinger’s cat,” in which an object can exist in two distinct states simultaneously.

“The Commissioner does not have the authority to make a Schrödinger’s cat of time of learning, where remote education does not count for student learning if the district has chosen it, but it does count if the family has chosen it, or if the school delivering it happens to be one of the two virtual schools the state has chartered,” she wrote in her letter. “Yet this week, he has done so, making this contradiction the state policy of Massachusetts.”

Because many schools in local districts lack sufficient space to maintain six feet of distance, districts including Boston planned on bringing students back to classrooms in a hybrid model, where alternating groups of students spend two days in school at a time.

In Chelsea, where crowded schools and high rates of infection have prompted local officials to opt for remote schooling, district officials haven’t yet decided whether they will ask for a waiver. Chelsea School Committee member Roberto Jiménez Rivera says Riley’s move undermines the authority of the district.

“It’s a completely undemocratic power grab,” he said. “It prioritizes privileged, generally white parents who have created organizations that are calling for full reopening.”

Jiménez Rivera cites a survey that found that most parents in the majority-Latino Chelsea schools were satisfied with the remote learning the district has been providing their children.

In Boston, school officials face similar challenges, with many schools lacking classrooms with sufficient space even for three feet of social distancing. Working in the district’s favor, however, is the fact that more than half of families have opted to remain remote, although more than 10% did not respond to the district’s poll.

A BPS spokesman last week said the district is reviewing Riley’s order and remains committed to reopening schools.

“In the coming days we will share updates with our families and distribute a survey in order to determine their interest in returning to five days of in-person learning,” the spokesman said in a statement.

At-large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who chairs the council’s Education Committee, also expressed support for returning students to in-person learning.

“Our kids needed to get back in our classrooms,” she said in a statement. “The achievement gap — that disproportionately affects our Black and brown students and was too large even before this pandemic — has grown wider and wider. We’re going to see it affecting a whole generation of students, which means we need to come up with real solutions, fast, on how we bridge that gap.”

The MCAS test

Jiménez Rivera echoed the concern of some education activists that the Baker administration’s push for in-person instruction is driven by a desire to have students take the yearly MCAS exam, which the state will not administer to students at home.

“The governor and DESE have shown no interest in pushing this test to next year,” he said.

State officials expect districts to administer the test to grades 3–5 between May 10 and June 11 but haven’t yet set dates for upper grades.

The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Friday released a letter calling for the state to suspend the test this year and allow schools to use their own assessments of students’ progress.

“Learning loss during Covid is more nuanced and local assessments are a better diagnostic of the missing learning progressions … needed to attain proficiency of a curriculum standard,” the letter reads.

The school superintendents’ organization notes that while the test is generally used to assess the performance of schools, the results, which take four to five months to process, won’t greatly affect how schools reopen in the September — a point Jiménez Rivera underscored.

“There’s nothing much we can do with the results of MCAS,” he said. “What’s the point of administering the test?”

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