State education official asking for reopening plans from 16 low-risk communities

WATERTOWN, MASS. (WHDH) - A top state education official is asking several school districts to explain why they’re using remote learning while their towns have low coronavirus cases, which a union official called “bullying tactics” to force educators and students into classrooms.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley sent a letter to 16 school districts that are re-opening with remote learning, saying the state “prioritizes a return to in-person school for as many students as possible, safely.”

The schools are in areas with low coronavirus transmission, and the state is recommending remote learning for areas with high transmission, Riley said. He said those districts need to give DESE a timeline for reopening and their response “may trigger an audit” of their remote learning plans.

“In light of the stark discrepancy between local public health data and your reopening plan, I am requesting a timeline by which you anticipate providing in-person instruction for the majority of your students including in-person instruction for vulnerable populations, such as students with disabilities, if these students have not already returned to in-person school,” Riley wrote in the letter.

But Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said the districts take other factors into consideration when deciding whether to open buildings or not, and said they know best about safety in their communities.

“This is the commissioner using bullying tactics to further the state’s reckless agenda to drive people back into school buildings where the circumstances are still not guaranteed to be safe,” Najimy said. “It’s time for the school committees to get the courage to stand up to the commissioner to say ‘We made a decision, our decision is the right decision, so back off.”

Amesbury Superintendent Jared Fulgoni said his district was staying remote in part because many staff members, including himself, travel from New Hampshire and Maine. But he said he didn’t feel bullied by the request.

“What [the commissioner] was looking for was to understand Amesbury’s decision,” Fulgoni said.

(Copyright (c) 2020 Sunbeam Television. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)