Manchester Essex among remote learning schools under scrutiny

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley wrote to 16 local school districts last week "in light of the stark discrepancy between local public health data and your reopening plan." [Sam Doran/SHNS/File 2020] 

BOSTON — Education officials are raising the pressure on more than a dozen school districts that have started the academic year remotely despite low COVID-19 infection rates, calling them out for lacking plans to bring students back into classrooms.

In a letter to 16 districts, including Manchester Essex Regional and Amesbury, state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley noted a "stark discrepancy between local public health data" and their reopening plans. He requested details and a timeline of when the districts will resume in-person instruction.

Riley noted low COVID-19 transmission rates in the communities, as reported by the state Department of Public Health.

"Since the inception of the weekly DPH color-coded reports, your community has consistently received a designation of green or gray, which indicates very low COVID-19 transmission in your municipality," Riley wrote. "I am concerned that the school committee has voted to keep most students learning remotely for the start of the 2020-21 school year."

Riley gave the districts 10 days to respond and warned that their response "may trigger an audit" to assess how they plan to proceed.

Amesbury Mayor Kassandra Gove, who chairs the city's School Committee, defended the decision to begin the school year remotely and said the city is "on the right track" with reopening plans. The city worked for months to develop a plan that took into account a range of factors, including testing availability and regional virus transmission rates, she said.

"Our plan includes a detailed outline of when we will re-evaluate the remote learning model of instruction for the majority of our students, with our high-need student population starting in-person this week," she said in a statement.

Gove said the district will respond to Riley's letter but fired back at his demands, pointing out administrators were told by state officials that "each district would be trusted to make the best decisions for our teachers, students and community."

Manchester Essex Regional School District Superintendent Pam Beaudoin last Wednesday said the School Committee is working to develop transition indicators, and the district's first report on where it is in meeting them is due Oct. 5.

"Our goal remains to bring students back to in-person learning as soon as possible," she said.

Gov. Charlie Baker has said that while the coronavirus remains a threat, a majority of cities and towns have COVID-19 rates low enough to allow for either a full return to school or a hybrid of in-person and remote learning.

But teachers' unions have resisted, calling for remote-only instruction amid concerns about social distancing, testing and ventilation in old school buildings.

Roughly 70% of the state's 402 school districts are offering a mix of in-person and remote learning, while a lesser number will provide only remote instruction, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. A handful are beginning the school year with in-person learning.

Beth Kontos, president of the Massachusetts chapter of American Federation of Teachers, blasted Riley's demands as government overreach.

"The decisions about reopening schools are being made by the elected boards in these communities," she said. "The state is trying to usurp their authority."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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