As cases of COVID-19 continue to spike across Massachusetts, state education leaders said Tuesday that even schools in communities deemed to be at the highest-risk for virus transmission should not abandon in-person classroom learning unless there is evidence that the virus is spreading within the schools.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley also defended plans for the state to administer the MCAS exam in the spring, with Peyser calling the pressure mounting to suspend the exam for another year a "stalking horse" for ending standardized testing completely.
The state's two top K-12 education officials testified before the Joint Committee on Education Tuesday as part of a legislative oversight hearing on the state's return to school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riley hinted that in the coming weeks the administration would have major announcements to make on internet connectivity and wifi hotspots for students, as well as details on a pilot program to use the more than 2 million rapid COVID-19 tests being delivered by the federal government in schools.
The Baker administration has asked districts to review at least three weeks of community COVID-19 data before altering their learning models, but Peyser said even consistently "red" communities should not switch to remote learning unless the virus is spreading in schools.
"It is increasingly clear that schools are not a source of transmission," Peyser said.
Committee Co-chair Sen. Jason Lewis acknowledged competing desires among educators, advocates and parents for the state to either provide clearer guidance on how schools should act, or to leave those decisions more fully to local communities.
"There are no easy answers," Lewis said. "What I'm sure we can all agree upon is we must do everything we can to support the academic and social-emotional needs of all our students."
Riley also said DESE was reviewing whether it could loosen the guidelines for school transportation and distancing on buses to facilitate the return of more students to the classroom. "That is still in development and no decision has been made on that and it has to be blessed by medical professionals," Riley said