By SCOTT JACKSON
Massachusetts officials are pushing to bring more children back to the classroom on a full-time basis in April, starting with elementary school students.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley on Tuesday said he would ask the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to give him permission to begin ending districts’ remote and hybrid learning programs.
“If I am granted this authority, I would take a phased-in approach to returning students to the classroom, working closely with state health officials and medical experts,” Riley said at a State House press conference.
“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. Ideally my initial goal is to bring all elementary students back to in-person learning five days a week in April.”
Parents will still have the option through the end of the school year of keeping their children home where they would learn remotely, Riley added. Districts would also be allowed to seek waivers to continue remote or hybrid learning models if needed.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Gov. Charlie Baker said 80 percent of school districts currently offer in-person learning either full-time or on a hybrid basis. The remaining 20 percent of school districts, home to 400,000 students, are fully remote.
Students are eager to get back to the classroom, the governor said.
“We’ve seen the repercussions of prolonged remote learning for our kids. Their social, mental and emotional wellbeing has been significantly impacted,” he said.
“Kids want to be in school learning alongside their friends, their 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 understanding the material.”
Baker said health experts – including Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor – have stressed the importance of bringing children back to school.
“The science is pretty clear on this one,” Baker said. “There are now dozens of reports from all over the world that it is 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.”
The governor brushed off the suggestion, made earlier in the day by the leader of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, that the renewed push for in-person learning was an attempt to deflect attention away from the state’s vaccination efforts.
“We’re number one in the country for first doses per capita among our peer states that have more than five million people – that’s 24 states that are basically our size or bigger,” Baker said. “I would hate to distract from that information, because that is a really good story.”
Baker and Riley said guidance in place for school districts, such as those for distancing, face masks and hygiene, would remain in place. Riley said the state will continue to require at least three feet of spacing in schools, though greater distances up to six feet are preferred.
“In Europe, in Asia and in many states in this country, people are at three feet or less,” Riley said. “We are sticking with our guidance, which is three feet, and if you can do more, please do so.”
Many school districts have already begun making plans to bring elementary students back for full in-person learning, Riley said.
First through third grade students in Quincy who had been enrolled in a hybrid learning model previously began full in-person learning this week. Supt. Kevin Mulvey previously told the School Committee fourth and fifth grade students currently enrolled in the hybrid program could potentially move to full in-person learning as soon as March 22.