Public schools in Massachusetts will have to begin offering in-person learning to elementary school students five days a week next month.
It's the first decision education Commissioner Jeff Riley made under new authority approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Friday afternoon, by a vote of 9-3. Under the regulation change, Riley can determine when remote-only education will no longer be an option for districts.
"The time is now to bring our kids back to school," said Riley during Friday's meeting.
State officials said the plan to open classrooms for elementary students would allow districts who have been remote-only for most of the school year to take a more graduated approach to fully reopening their buildings. Parents would still have the option to choose remote learning for their children through at least the end of this school year.
Riley did not set a target date for middle and high schools to begin full-time, in-person learning, but said that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is planning for a full, in-person return in the fall. Districts would be able to apply for waivers that would allow for a more phased-in approach, especially if they've been remote-only for most of the school year.
"The data is clear that students learning in the classroom can be done safely and it is vital to their emotional and intellectual health," said Gov. Charlie Baker in a statement.
Opinions about the policy drew a wide range of responses Friday.
"If you adopt this you are giving the commissioner broad powers to override any school district's planned learning model," Somerville Educators Union President Rami Bridge told board members ahead of the vote. "There are no parameters guidelines and processes for his decisions. Simply the judgement of a single, unelected official."
Parent and Lawrence High School history teacher Teresa English said local school systems should have the ability to make this kind of decision on their own because risk factors for COVID-19, like infection rates, affect each district differently.
"More state control is not the solution," English said. "If a school or building is struggling to open, fully the state should be providing the school with resources rather than assuming control."
But other parents like Zineb Nemoura of Everett argued the current hybrid model many districts are using in Massachusetts is not working.
"We know a lot about what [infection reduction strategies] work and what doesn't," she said. "We are capable of taking the necessary steps to reduce the risk to students and staff. ... We owe it to them to re-establish full-time, in-person learning."
Board members were mostly positive about the policy proposal. Member Matt Hills said he was enthusiastically a "yes" vote. He also encouraged Commissioner Riley to begin the process for requiring middle and high schools to reopen for full time, in-person learning as quickly as possible.
"We need to move on from this," Hills said. "Whether it's now, two months or six months from now, we're going to go through the same issues with implementing it in the districts."
Three board members opposed the move, most citing the fact they only received the details of the commissioner's plan just hours before the vote.
"At the end of the day this is about trust," Darlene Lombos said. "I do want to appreciate how much thought you’ve put into this, but this is the first time we’re seeing this plan. We all need to get together to get through this together."
Commissioner Riley said he would have more details to share about phasing out remote learning by the board's next meeting.
Correction: an earlier version of this story misidentified the Somerville Educators Union.