Mass. education commissioner pushing to return elementary students to classrooms statewide in April

BOSTON (WHDH) - The state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education on Tuesday proposed a phased approach to returning Massachusetts children to classrooms that would have some students back by April as coronavirus metrics continue to trend positively in many communities.

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“There is widespread agreement in the medical community that younger students are less likely to contract the virus and transmit it,” Jeffrey C. Riley said during a joint news conference with Gov. Charlie Baker at the State House.

Riley announced that he hopes to start by bringing elementary school students who have been most impacted by remote learning back to class for five days a week come April.

Riley added that he would like to completely eliminate remote and hybrid learning models.

“At some point, as health metrics continue to improve, we will need to take the remote and hybrid learning models off the table and return to a traditional school format,” Riley said.

Baker added, “There is no substitute for in-person learning, especially for students in elementary school. It’s time to set our sights on eliminating remote learning by April…Kids want to be in school learning alongside their classmates and their peers.”

With more than 900 schools taking part in COVID-19 pool testing and the state’s vaccination rollout well underway, Baker and Riley stressed that now is the time to start looking at getting children back to school.

“The evidence on this one is crystal clear and it has been for months,” Baker said. “It’s safe to teach kids in the classroom, regardless of community transmission, as long as people abide by the protocols.”

Middle and high school students would then be brought back to class later in the school year, according to Riley.

Teachers and staff would undergo weekly testing if students are ultimately brought back.

“The percent of positive COVID cases over seven days and hospitalization rates have been falling now for almost a month, and our Commonwealth and our country are making progress in getting back to what I think of as the next normal,” Baker said. “It’s our responsibility to ensure kids can get back in the classroom. They deserve the highest quality of education possible.”

Parents would still be given the option of keeping their children enrolled in remote learning through the end of the school year.

School districts that are fully remote would have the option to first shift to hybrid learning before jumping to full-time, in-person learning.

About 20 percent of districts in the state are currently fully remote, according to Baker.

Riley says he plans to ask the education board to hold a vote in March that would give him the authority to amend student learning time regulations, and make changes to when hybrid and remote models no longer count for learning hours.

Baker noted that the state “looks forward” to working with the board to make Riley’s plan happen.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy knocked Riley’s plan, saying that he “can’t just wave a magic wand” and make the dangers of COVID-19 disappear.

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