BOSTON — State education leaders have expanded the power of Education Commissioner Jeff Riley to force schools to reopen and bring students back to in-person classes.
On Friday, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 8-3 to allow Riley to notify districts that they may no longer use hybrid or remote learning models if he concludes, after consulting with medical experts, that students may safely return.
Riley has already announced his goal of returning all elementary students to school five days a week by April 5.
"We've seen our (COVID-19) numbers go way down and the promise of vaccines go up, and we think now is the time to begin moving our children back into school more robustly," Riley told the board. "The medical community believes it, and I think now is the time to make that call."
Riley said students who want to continue with online-based learning may do so through the end of the school year, but he plans to fully reopen all schools by fall. He said the state will develop a waiver system for a "small number" of districts that cannot meet the reopening deadlines.
Ahead of the vote, board members heard from health experts who cited new research showing schools can be reopened safely with precautions in place. They also cited data suggesting that mental health issues among school-age children have increased dramatically during the pandemic.
Several parents pleaded with the board to reopen schools.
"For almost a year my children have yet to step foot in a classroom," Zineb Nemoura, a mother of two elementary students from Everett, told the board. "This has to stop."
The board also heard from teachers unions opposed to Riley's push to reopen schools.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said forcing schools to reopen before communities are ready "will increase stress on already stressed students and staff, disrupt lesson plans and teaching models, throw bus schedules to the wind, and blow a hole through (Centers for Disease Control) health and safety guidance."
"We all share the ultimate goal of giving all students the opportunity to learn in person, but it has to be done right," she said. "This is not the right way."
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education is among those supporting efforts to reopen schools.
"There is no replacement for in-person learning, and it should be pursued vigorously when and where safe," said Ed Lambert, the group's executive director. "This strong state action is an important step toward ensuring equal educational opportunities."
Gov. Charlie Baker has pushed to get more kids back into classrooms since schools reopened in the fall. He has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief to school districts for expanding COVID-19 testing and to implement safety precautions allowing schools to shift to in-person learning.
Earlier this week, Baker announced that teachers and school staff will be given earlier access to COVID-19 vaccines to help with the reopening process.
Friday's vote by the state education board also updates new rules on learning times for all public schools. Schools now must provide a minimum of 35 hours of live instruction over a 10-day period under hybrid learning models. For online only instruction, districts must provide at least 40 hours of "synchronous" teaching over a 10-day period.
Many districts are already taking steps to expand in-class time, either by expanding in-person learning times or the number of days students come to school.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com