Gov. Charlie Baker wants to phase out remote learning starting in April, making it possible for every student to return to the classroom before the school year ends.
"We've seen the repercussions of prolonged remote learning for our kids: Their social, mental and emotional well-being has been significantly impacted," Gov. Baker said during a press briefing Tuesday.
Baker pointed to "dozens of reports from all over the world that it's safe to be in school" particularly with mitigation measures in place such as masking, hygiene, cleaning, physical distancing and routine coronavirus testing. More than 900 Massachusetts schools are now participating in a routine, pooled surveillance testing program for students, teachers and staff.
Last week, President Biden said the goal for in-person learning time for students should be five days a week.
State education Commissioner Jeff Riley says that parents would be able to choose to keep their kids learning remotely if they choose. Riley said about 20% of the state's districts are operating fully remote and are among the state's largest districts.
"At some point, as health metrics continue to improve, we will need to take remote and hybrid learning models off the table and return to a traditional school format," Riley said during a Tuesday meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The state's latest data from the beginning of February show 462 students and 212 staff had reported positive cases. The case numbers have been generally trending downward following a post-Thanksgiving increase.
"We’ll never have zero risk in school when it comes to COVID-19 or any danger infectious or otherwise," testified Dr. Shira Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, during Tuesday's board hearing. "We simply have to change our mindset when it comes to risk tolerance. The risk in school is low. The risk to our children being out of school is growing."
In a Feb. 14 letter addressed to Riley, more than 60 physicians stressed the mental and physical health harms for students isolated at home.
But some teachers union leaders are pushing for more details around school ventilation and teacher vaccinations.
"We still haven't seen a plan for vaccinations for educators," Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang said. "Educators are ready to get those vaccinations."
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, has said that educators should receive early vaccinations, but that teachers do not need to be vaccinated in order to reopen schools safely. Educators are listed under phase two of the state's vaccine rollout.
"I do think that we're at a point that we have sufficient evidence to show that it's safe to go back to the classroom, both for the students and the teachers," Kelly Horton of Bedford said.
Horton has three kids. Her third grader is learning in a hybrid model in Bedford Public Schools, and she can’t wait for him to get more time in front of his teacher. Horton is afraid he’s falling behind academically.
"My third grader knows how to navigate his Chromebook, he knows what links to click, he knows how to work Zoom and all of that," she said. "But when I actually take a closer look at what he's learning and comprehending, it's minimal."
Other children need the social and emotional supports that classroom learning can provide. Ally Mancuso’s fifth grade daughter has ADHD and has been struggling to keep up on her remote learning days in Holliston Public Schools.
"We've struggled a lot from a behavioral standpoint at home, much more than we have in the past," Mancuso said. "It is heightened now, and I know exactly why."
Others, like Boston parent Matthew Smith, are conflicted. While he is personally comfortable sending his daughter back to full time in-person kindergarten, he worries what that would be like.
"I don't want to send my daughter back to a school where some of the kid's parents, some of the kids themselves, are scared or the teachers are scared," Smith said.
But he’s also worried about the impacts of screen time. Spending so much time on Zoom is already influencing his young daughter’s play time.
"She'll take a cardboard box and be like, 'OK, this is my this is this is my computer. We have a meeting now. OK, we have to Zoom into the meeting. Can you please mute?' And that's heartbreaking," Smith said.
But there are also families who believe returning to in-person learning still doesn’t feel safe, especially if they have underlying health issues.
Nalida Besson’s daughter has a chronic condition, so she wants her kids to finish out the year at Boston Public Schools remotely. She on the fence about next school year. The new COVID-19 variants are making her nervous.
"I know they say children are less affected," Besson said. "They may get it, but they have a higher chance of survival. At the same time, I think from an equity standpoint, looking at the children who are most affected — it’s Black and brown children. And that's my kids."
In Worcester, only half of families opted for a hybrid learning model. District leaders have discussed creating a remote academy for next school year to accommodate families who don't feel comfortable sending their kids to school until children have been vaccinated.
"We have every ability to serve them," Worcester school committee member Tracy O'Connell Novick said. "We’ve been doing remote particularly well since September. And for the commissioner to try to rip that away from us seems poorly thought out — to put it nicely."
"I still don’t think it’s possible to make an across the board announcement that as of a specific date, this is what’s going to happen," Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said. "Once you start using the heavy hand of state regulation and you start telling people what to do, you run the risk of inviting a more civil form of civil disobedience where the communities say no you really can’t impose those on us."
Riley said he will ask the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for the authority to determine when hybrid and remote models will no longer count for learning hours in March's board meeting. The learning modes will be available at least until the end of this school year, but he would like to set an end date for remote learning in traditional public school districts soon.
This article was originally published on February 23, 2021.