Schools in Massachusetts will open in September — but whether that means online classes, in-person learning, or a hybrid of both is still up in the air.
That’s according to Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley, who met with hundreds of parents from around the Commonwealth to address concerns and questions around the state’s initial guidelines for reopening schools, unveiled by Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday.
“We recognize that certainly there are students with underlying medical conditions who we need to get services to,” the commissioner said. “But I also think that we’ve got an obligation to parents who are reluctant to send their kids back to ensure that they have a robust learning program.”
Riley broke down the new regulations during a virtual town hall Thursday evening hosted by Massachusetts Parents United, the largest parent advocacy organization in Massachusetts.
In a statement, the organization’s founder Keri Rodrigues acknowledged that while the new recommendations “do not address all of the needs and concerns of parents and families, we do feel that some progress has been made,” particularly with the inclusion of families of color, families of children with special needs and families who are English Language Learners.
“In the future, we hope that these voices will be automatically welcomed to the conversation,” Rodrigues wrote, “instead of having to fight for access at a table where there are more members of law enforcement than families.”
Riley said the state intends to create more resources for parents to learn how to use online lesson plans and educational technology, and offer those resources in multiple languages.
“We have put out trainings for teachers to help students figure out the technology, but the reality is that we need trainings for our students and we need trainings for our parents,” Riley said. “I’m not sure that we’ve ever really collaborated with our families like we need to.”
The state’s initial guidelines suggest that the Commonwealth is making funding available to school districts, in addition to federal grants including a portion of the $502 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund and $193.8 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.
Riley said in aditon to the grants, additional funding will be required to support reopening, but it’s unclear where that funding will come from.
This comes as hundreds of educators across more than 50 school districts have been laid off due to budget cuts in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t guarantee there won’t be cuts,” Riley said. Two big variables, he said, are whether the federal government will send another stimulus package to individual states, and whether or not tax revenue filed by the end of July will be significant.
“We are at a time of extreme budget uncertainty,” he said. “We are hoping the federal government will send more money, we are hoping the tax revenue will look better in July than it has looked, but until then, we just don’t know.”
Rodrigues read questions from parents of children with special needs, who said they have not gotten sufficient or adequate educational services from their schools throughout the pandemic. Riley said the state is asking districts to do an assessment of their most vulnerable students, including students with learning disabilities or behavioral issues.
“That will be dealt with on a school-by-school and student-by-student basis,” Riley said. “There’s a recognition that our special education students in particular need to have focus from teachers and schools so we can get them back on track as quickly as possible.”
It remains to be seen what school districts decide, but if parents are not eager to send their children back to school during what is expected to be another surge of the pandemic, the commissioner said they may be able to opt into online learning, even if other children are physically returning to school.
“You’re the parent,” Riley said. “You know what’s best for your kid.”
If school districts decide to opt into a hybrid or remote educational model, the districts will need to work with community organizations like the YMCA and the Boy’s and Girl’s Club to ensure that parents who cannot afford childcare and need to work will have a place to send their children.
“It’s going to have to be a community-led effort,” Riley said. “They’ll have to work with community partners to see what kinds of care can be provided to those students.”
An in-person educational model will be encouraged by the state and would require students above second grade and teachers to wear masks and social distance whenever possible, Riley said. Students will also be given a “mask break” outside when they get sick of wearing one, and students who cannot wear masks for health or behavioral reasons will be allowed to forgo one.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be the mask police,” Riley said. “I don’t think this should be a disciplinary endeavor, and there are students who just frankly can’t wear a mask, so we have to be willing to make that exception as well.”
Further guidance, including regulations for school transportation and sports, is expected to come from the state in July. Part of the impetus for an initial set of guidelines released earlier in the summer, Riley said, is so that advocacy work can begin to ensure that needed funding can go towards education in the state.
“I think we need to advocate now and continue to over the summer for our sector,” Riley said. “At the end of the day, our kids are our most precious resource, and a budget is a moral document. We need to make the case that it’s our kids that deserve the money.”