By SCOTT JACKSON
Massachusetts officials are making a full-court press to have more students learning in-person on a full-time basis.
Gov. Charlie Baker and state education leaders on Nov. 6 released new guidance that prioritizes in-person learning for students across the state. The Department of Public Health also unveiled revised metrics to determine a community’s risk level that factor in the municipality’s population and positivity rates for COVID-19 tests in addition to the number of cases.
Communities like Quincy with more than 50,000 residents will now be considered gray if they have fewer than 15 total COVID-19 cases. Those communities are considered green if they have more than 15 total cases and a daily new case rate of less than 10 per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks.
Those communities would be considered yellow, or moderate risk, if they have a new case rate of 10 or more per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks or if they have a positivity rate greater than or equal to 4 percent. If the new case rate per 100,000 residents per day exceeds 10 and the positivity rate is greater than or equal to 4 percent, the community would be considered red or high risk.
Quincy was categorized as a green, or a low-risk community, on the weekly community level report published by the DPH later on on Nov. 6. The average daily new case rate over per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks was 7.9 and positive test rate was 1.6 percent.
James Peyser, the state’s education secretary, said school districts in communities that are considered gray, green or yellow are now expected to have students back in class on a full-time basis.
“Districts and schools in communities designated as gray, green or yellow are expected to have students learning fully in-person if logistically feasible. A hybrid model should be used only if there is no other way to meet health and safety requirements related to school buildings or transportation,” Peyser said during a State House press conference.
“Schools in red communities should consider implementing hybrid models instead of going fully remote while minimizing remote learning time for younger and high-needs students.”
Jeffrey Riley, the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said data from Massachusetts and throughout world show that the virus is not being spread in schools that follow standards for masks, distancing and hygiene.
“Through our local experience as well as the emerging medical literature on re-opening schools across the world, the time to get kids back to school is now,” Riley said.
“It has become increasingly clear that this virus is going to be with us for a while. We have created ways to safely return to school through our extensive health and safety guidance, new opportunities for COVID testing and our DESE rapid-response help center for districts. With these measures in place, and evidence that schools can operate safely for in-person learning, we need to continue to work hard to get as many students back to learning in school buildings as possible.”
While state officials are pushing for more in-person learning, Baker said local leaders would still make the final decision on what model to use.
“The goal generally speaking in Massachusetts is the state sets standards, provides guidance, provides resources and measures performance, but the decision about what actually happens on the ground in each community is a decision made at the community level,” the governor said.
Riley said DESE would work with districts that do not adhere to the new guidance on a case-by-case basis.
“If people start deviating from it, we will address that individually,” he said. “But we do also respect what happens locally.”
Baker also left it up to local officials to decide if a school or schools should move to fully remote learning on a temporary basis after students were found to be at large parties. North Quincy High School, for example, went fully remote for a two-week period starting Nov. 2 after some 70 students attended a Halloween party.
“I think local communities need to make their own call with respect to how they want to play that,” Baker said when asked about closing schools because of parties.
“If your goal here is to serve kids in-person or serve kids on a hybrid basis and you come across…a situation that you feel requires to go remote for a week or two, I think that is a far better outcome than just saying we’re going to stay remote.”
Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, said the new community-level grading system rolled out by the DPH is similar to systems by New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and more conservative than New Hampshire’s system.
By incorporating the positivity rate in the new system, Baker said local communities have an incentive to encourage residents to get tested for the coronavirus.
“You don’t want to tell a community not to test as much as they possibly can because finding cases and contact tracing and helping people support themselves in isolation is a better answer always than not doing the testing because you don’t want to raise your cases per 100,000,” he said.
“We want to give you credit if you’re testing a lot for the fact that your positive test rate is reasonably low.”
Dr. Mary Beth Miotto, the vice president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said her organization supported the change in the system.
“More nuanced data will allow the safer school health planning that we need, including the ability to potentially pause in-person learning in the event of small outbreaks or to potentially return more children to school on a full-time or hybrid basis,” Miotto said.
Miotto practices in Worcester, where classes are fully remote. She said students are suffering physically and mentally from full remote schedules.
“I’ve begun to handout jump ropes in my annual well-child visits, because my school-age patients have gained 20 pounds or more in just the time of the pandemic. They are sitting for long periods of time with limited physical activity and may not be getting highly nutritious meals. The long-term consequences of rapid weight gain and sedentary lifestyles will certainly be seen for years to come,” Miotto said.
“Another sobering narrative on mental health is being revealed. Last week, I heard yet again from a pediatric intensive care specialist who told me that their hospital census is constituently reflecting more hospitalizations for youth suicide attempts than pediatric COVID cases.
“What is so concerning is that many of these kids with suicidal thoughts and attempts don’t have a history of behavioral health problems – they are typical children bending or breaking under the stress of the pandemic and specifically from being alone at the computer for many long hours.”
Students and teachers learning and working remotely are at no less risk of acquiring COVID-19 than their peers attending schools on a full- or part-time basis, Miotto added.
“Since we have districts on remote, hybrid and full return to school right here in Massachusetts, tracking data show that viral transmission rates are not lower in either students or teachers working and learning remotely,” she said.