State education leaders are increasing pressure on the state's three largest public school districts to reopen their school buildings for in-person learning.
Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley recently sent letters to district leaders in Boston, Springfield and Worcester asking for more information about their plans to restart in-person learning.
"We need to know if it is possible to accelerate your proposed timeline for providing in-person instruction to students with disabilities," Riley wrote in the letters, adding that "your response may initiate an audit."
Riley explained any potential audit by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) would examine the districts' overall efforts to provide in-person instruction and determine if remote learning programs are consistent with state and federal laws.
"For these particularly vulnerable groups of students, it is vital to have a plan for
providing in-person instruction as soon as possible," he added.
School leaders in Worcester said Friday that they felt frustrated by the state's letter.
"We continue to see rising coronavirus rates and the commissioner has decided that the answer is that we need to audit our district," said Tracy O’Connell Novick, a member of the city's school committee.
She would like DESE to do more to recognize the work her district has done to improve the quality of remote learning.
"Just the priority system in place here is really screwed up," she added.
Russel Johnston, senior associate commissioner of DESE and the state director of special education, pushed back on that assertion, saying that work is to be commended.
"But," he said, "there is a small number of students who we know will struggle regardless of how strong a remote model might be. We feel like it's our obligation to have this push for that particular group of students, because we know it's necessary."
Worcester and Springfield Public Schools are currently running fully remote learning models. Schools in Boston are offering in-person services to a group of less than 200 students with very high learning needs.
Officials in Boston recently convened a task force to create a plan to open the district up to more students with significant disabilities and high learning needs. However, city leaders also stressed that they will continue to rely on public health metrics in their decision-making.
"The Boston Public Schools (BPS) firmly believes the best learning environment for our students is inside a classroom, learning from their teachers alongside their peers," said BPS officials in a written statement. "We remain hopeful that in the future we will be able to restore in-person learning opportunities for even more students when it is safe to do so."
Leaders with the Boston Teachers Union recently sent an email to members indicating that 28 additional school buildings might be in line to reopen to a larger group of high needs students soon. The email did not provide a specific date, just that it would happen "when and if rates and metrics allow for it."
Those metrics have not yet been released publicly.
This isn't the first time state education leaders have pressured districts to speed up their reopening plans. In September, Riley sent letters to 16 districts that were considered low risk for COVID-19 transmission at the time asking them to shorten their timeline for restarting in-person instruction.
The three school districts that received this round of letters from Riley were given 10 days to respond with detailed plans for when and how they will bring students with disabilities back to the classroom.
Johnston said the threat of an audit was intended to communicate the fact that this is more than just an information request; There could be consequences.
"We have a role as the state education agency to make sure students are receiving the services they're entitled to," he said.
The letters did not include a target date for when DESE would like to have the school buildings reopen to students with disabilities, but with the holiday break just a few weeks away it's unlikely it will happen before January.