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State Education Commissioner to School Districts: Go In-Person or Face Audit
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
11:08AM / Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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BOSTON. — Continuing a pressure campaign against local school districts that began over the summer, the commissioner of education this week sent multiple districts a letter requesting "further information" of those who are beginning the school year with remote instruction.
 
In a letter dated Friday, Jeffrey C. Riley told more than a dozen districts, including Pittsfield Public Schools, Hoosac Valley Regional and the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School, that they have "very low COVID-19 transmission" and that he is "concerned" that their school committees have elected to keep most students remote to start the academic year.
 
Riley's letter cites the fall reopening plan issued by the commonwealth in June, which, he notes, was endorsed by the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
 
He also refers to a July missive from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention titled "Importance of Reopening Schools."
 
"Death rates among school-aged children are much lower than among adults," the CDC document reads. "At the same time, the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant.
 
"Further, the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities."
 
This summer, Riley reportedly privately told school superintendents that if they did not come up with reopening plans that created an in-person or hybrid model, he would "review their work." He then said publicly the "vast majority" of superintendents favor in-person or hybrid models.
 
On Friday, he was clear about the consequences of not instituting in-person or hybrid models in communities designated gray or green in the Department of Public Health's color-coded report on community transmission of COVID-19. All of Berkshire County is now in the gray, or lowest, level of transmission.
 
"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. "Please note that your response may trigger an audit to assess overall efforts to provide in-person instruction and to ensure your remote learning program is consistent with [Massachusetts law on student learning time]."
 
The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association told CBS Channel 4 in Boston that Riley's letter was "threatening" to the districts that received it.
 
"It's Commissioner Riley's typical bullying tactics to drive a reckless agenda of pushing education communities back into school buildings against their will," union head Merrie Najimy told the Boston media outlet in a story on its website. "[The letter] felt very much to us like, ‘You better give me my plan or we will subject you to an audit.' "
 
Hoosac Valley opened last week with kindergartners and special populations attending some in-person and the rest of the student body remote, with plans to phase into a hybrid system beginning in October; Pittsfield began fully remote last week and also plans to transition to a hybrid model by the end of October. BArT is fully remote but with plans in place to switch to hybrid should the health data remain positive with plans to evaluate this by Oct. 1.
 
Other Berkshire schools have started remote with dates to transition to hybrid, such as North Adams, in a hybrid model or, for some smaller schools, fully in person. Parents and teachers have the option to remain remote. 
 
The private Pine Cobble School in Williamstown started in-person but is now in the second week of a two-week remote status after six positive tests for COVID-19. However, both Williams College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts have had a handful of cases between them and have continued without changing their schedules. 
 
Gov. Charlie Baker, when addressing back-to-school issues, has repeatedly deferred to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, headed by Riley. But he also has talked about a desire for local control.
 
"Communities need to look at their data," he said on Aug. 7. "That's why we're going to start publishing a lot more data that's community-specific. And there are many communities in Massachusetts that are in very good shape when it comes to their COVID rates. But there are a bunch that we have work to do on.
 
"What do people love most of all about living in New England when it comes to governance? … We like local government, right? What we've tried to say from the beginning on this stuff is we will provide guidance and financial resources, which we have done, to our colleagues in local government, and then we really wanted them to make the best decision on behalf of their community. … If you look at the data across most communities in Massachusetts, there's plenty of opportunity there based on the science and what we know, for them to consider reopening, in some way, in person."
 
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