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With Full Reopening Weeks Away, State Allows For Extra Time In 60 School Districts

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

With the deadline for the full reopening of elementary school buildings less than two weeks away, state education officials will give some school districts a few weeks of extra time.

Out of 74 that applied, at least 60 school districts, including Boston and Worcester, have been granted waivers that will exempt them — temporarily — from reopening regulations proposed by education commissioner Jeff Riley earlier this month.

But Riley's office is still pursuing a statewide return to in-person learning this school year. Six districts were denied waivers because they asked to continue hybrid learning until June, or sought to remain fully remote one day each week.

The deadline to request a waiver was Monday. As of Wednesday afternoon, state officials had not yet prepared a complete list of districts where requests were denied or are still under consideration.

Thirty-two of the districts granted a waiver, officials said, have remained entirely remote since schools first closed a year ago. Most of those sought extra time to adjust plans and prepare staff and buildings.

Riley granted waiver requests from Boston and Worcester Wednesday after a prolonged review. His letters allow both districts several weeks to transition into full in-person schooling — and also warn that no further delays are likely to be granted.

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Over 1,000 people had signed an online petition calling for Riley to deny a waiver to Boston Public Schools, arguing that 30,000 district students have already opted into a hybrid model and the growing availability of vaccines to educators.

State officials stress that these waivers are not a blank check.

Even in districts where they were granted — including Somerville, Springfield and Brockton — all elementary schools will be expected to implement partly in-person, hybrid education no later than April 5, and return to fully in-person schooling no later than May 3.

Brockton, the state’s fifth-largest school district, has nearly 7,200 students enrolled from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade.

Superintendent Michael Thomas thanked state officials for allowing a delay until April 26, which he said will give Brockton “time to address our new transportation needs and to procure large tents so that we can host lunch periods outdoors.”

According to Brockton’s waiver request (PDF), 25% of families said they plan to keep their children at home even after the city’s schools reopen. Another 11% are unsure what they will do.

Brockton has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, with 12,272 confirmed cases since the pandemic began. In the latest state report, Brockton was still rated ‘yellow’ due to above-average transmission of the virus there.

In a statement, Riley said his office is “thrilled” that all elementary-grade students will be back in classrooms soon. Families can elect to keep their children learning from home through the end of the current school year.

“Bringing all our kids back to school is crucial for their education progress, emotional and social well-being,” Riley added. “We will continue to work with districts to bring students back ahead of their waiver-approved return dates.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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