Mass. Education Commissioner: Fears of Super-Spreading Schools 'Somewhat Unfounded'

State public health officials plan updates to the metric that measures community COVID-19 transmission risks that will incorporate examples where cases at colleges, nursing homes, or jails may push an entire community into the red category and affect decisions about in-person learning, according to the state education commissioner, who added Tuesday that fears of super-spreading schools have turned out to be "somewhat unfounded."

"We've seen how those places can skew a city's or town's data, and so we're hoping that when the new metric comes out it will take that into account," Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education during a meeting Tuesday in Malden.

The green-yellow-red stoplight metric announced in August by Gov. Charlie Baker was quickly adopted by state education officials as the way to determine if in-person, hybrid or remote learning is the best approach in a new school year marked by grave concerns over virus tranmission possibilities. The governor a month later emphasized that districts should not react to single incidents, and should make decisions based on three weeks work of community virus data.

At Tuesday's meeting, Riley said he expects the updates to its stoplight metric will reflect "more nuanced" information about virus cases. "We are in a time of evolving information," he said. "We have always said that we will look at the evolving medical information and make updates to our guidance documents."

Riley also credited the schools in Massachusetts, mentioning teachers and administrators specifically, for doing a "good job" with COVID-19 safety measures like social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing and people staying home if they are sick.

"I think we also really need to think about the fact that we have not seen robust transmission in our schools," Riley said. "And what I mean by that is we've had schools open now for five or six weeks and what we're seeing is, yes there have been cases, but they've been for the most part identified, isolated — people have got close contacts — and the educational programming has been able to continue. I think what we're seeing both across the country and the state is that the fear that schools were going to be seen as super-spreading places has been somewhat unfounded."

The virus that has so far killed more than 9,700 people in Massachusetts this year has emerged in some schools.

During the week of Oct. 1, which state officials are using for baseline data, there were 163 total cases in schools, including 106 students and 57 staff. In the week of Oct. 8, there were 160 cases - 92 students and 68 staff.

"Many of these are isolated instances," Riley said. "And there's been very few incidences of spread where we've had to call the mobile response unit."

Riley in September sent a letter to 16 school districts that were in the state's lowest categories for COVID-19 risk but had not reopened schools for at least some in-person learning. On Tuesday, he said most of the districts it contacted had progressed to in-person learning since then or are planning to, but mentioned two school districts, without naming them, that he said will be audited. The News Service has learned the two districts are East Longmeadow and Watertown.

State officials said the two districts did not significantly move their timeline for returning students to in-person or hybrid instruction, despite concerns raised by the commissioner. Their remote learning programs will be audited to determine if they are adhering to state and federal regulations that govern structured learning time, among other areas.


The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has issued more than 220 pages of guidance on reopening schools during the pandemic, and Riley said the state education team is transitioning to supporting and monitoring schools now that they have been open for weeks.

In the area of support, the state has assisted districts that have come under cyberattack, helped more than 50 districts with technology needs, ensure that food services operations are functioning, and focused on supplies related to the pandemic, extra buses for districts, and resources for teachers.

In the area of monitoring, state officials are examining learning time, the delivery of services to English learners and special needs students, the need for districts and teachers to communicate with students and families, and making sure remote learning districts have plans to return to in-person learning.



More from WBUR

Listen Live