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State Wants Students Back in the Classroom in April
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
04:33PM / Tuesday, February 23, 2021
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Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley speaks about at Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing. He and Secretary of Education James Peyser, far right, said data supports returning students to classrooms this spring.

BOSTON — Public school students are expected to be back in the classroom by April. 
Gov. Charlie Baker and Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley on Tuesday outlined a phased-in process that will begin with elementary students. 
"There's no substitute for in-person learning, especially for kids in elementary school," the governor said at his daily briefing. "Our administration's been clear for months that the best place for kids is in the classroom and today Commissioner Riley started a process, working with the board of Elementary and Secondary Education, to get more kids back into the classroom full time by phasing out remote-only learning in April."
Schools went into remote-learning only last spring as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country. In the fall, many switched to a hybrid model with partial time in schools buildings but others remained remote. 
Statewide, about 20 percent of districts are still in full remote, Baker said, affecting about 400,000 children. 
"Most of them haven't been in a classroom, since last March," he said. "With COVID cases and hospitalizations continuing to decline, and vaccines well underway, it's time to set our sights on eliminating remote learning by April."
Riley said starting with elementary students made sense as there was widespread agreement in the medical community that young students are less likely to contract or transmit the novel coronavirus. 
"My focus would be on bringing back elementary students first with the plan likely extending to middle school grades later in the school year, and possibly high schools as well," he said. 
The state Department of Education has provided detailed guidance on safety in the classroom, Riley said, and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for personal protective gear, safety materials, and ventilation and air purification systems. 
"Parents will still have the option for the children to learn remotely through the end of the school year, if they so choose," he continued. "And there will be a waiver process for districts who may need to take a more incremental approach."
Some 900 schools are now participating in the pool testing regimen — including North Adams Public Schools — which allow for rapid testing of groups such as classrooms. This is impacting about 280,000 children and thousands of staff and faculty members. 
"Working with the medical community, Massachusetts schools have done an incredible job of keeping our students and staff safe during this pandemic," riley said. "The superintendents and their school staff have done amazing work, implementing the mitigation strategies, and the full testing, and I cannot shout them out enough.
"We are now asking them to go one step further."
Riley will be asking the Board of Education in March to approve this plan. 
In the Berkshires, most schools are now back in a hybrid learning model after nearly two months in remote because of a surge in cases around the holidays. Smaller schools, such as Clarksburg and Hancock, have been mostly in classroom since the start of school last fall. Obstacles to being fully in class have been space issues, for instance Clarksburg's middle school is hybrid only because the number of children  makes it difficult to keep the recommended 6-foot distance.
Commission of Education James Peyser said there has been little or no evidence of transmission in schools even in communities with higher rates positive tests — as long as schools are following the health and safety protocols. Studies are showing there is actually a lower infection rate among students within schools than outside. 
In terms of clusters of cases, schools have generally ranked low in rates of transmission with households being the main vector for spread. 
"We've seen the repercussions of prolonged remote learning for our kids," said the governor. "Their social mental and emotional well-being, has been significantly impacted.
"Kids want to be in school learning alongside their friends or classmates and their peers. They want to have a chance to engage their teachers in person. Time and time again and especially when they have challenges associated with understanding the material science is pretty clear on this one," the governor said. "There are now dozens of reports from all over the world, that it's safe to be in school and doctors and public health experts including Dr. Fauci all agree that getting kids back in school needs to be a top priority, we've committed funding resources and support to schools and districts to return to classrooms."
Educators will be among the next group eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine — although the ability to get one will depend largely on shipments from the federal government. The state has opened more vaccination sites but as of Tuesday afternoon, there was limited access to first dose shots. 
In response to a question if this was a way to distract from problems with the vaccination rollout — a crashing website, questionable decision to allow companion/caregivers of eligible residents to get shots, and low numbers of doses — the governor defended the vaccination program. 
"We're No. 1 in the country in first doses per capita among our peer states that have more than 5 million people, that's 24 states that are basically our size are bigger, and we've been a top 10 player for the past two or three weeks," he said. "I want to distract from that information, because that's a really good story."
Baker said the state has built out capacity for vaccinations and prioritized mass and regional vaccination sites but their ability to operate is dependent on the number of doses being provided through the federal government. 
"When you get 450,000 requests for vaccines, new first dose vaccines, each week and you have 130,000 first dose vaccines that are available, that creates anxiety, and when you have a million people who are eligible to get a vaccine, and you only get 130,000 first doses a week, that creates an anxiety," he said. "And what we've tried to say to people about some of this is to be patient. Everybody's going to get vaccinated, but everybody can't get vaccinated at once because we don't have enough supply."


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