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The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was called back into session at 2 pm on Friday, March 5 for a meeting to discuss Commissioner Riley's request for authority to decide when hybrid and remote options for education would no longer count towards a district's time on learning. The agenda, including the proposed regulation change, can be found here.
While the livestream can be found here, the Department suffered from technical difficulties such that a portion of public comment at the beginning of the meeting was not broadcast. Apologies for names that were missed.
There were several doctors with specialities ranging from breast imagery to infectious diseases, all of whom testified as to the importance of schools being opened and spoke of the limited transmission within schools from the research they had reviewed. One commended screening testing as being "relative cheap" at $5 per test and said that Massachusetts "could lead the way on the safe return to school." They cited increasing rates of mental health issues, obesity, myopia, learning loss, and social opportunities. A kinesiologist argued that students need "daily opportunity for physical movement" under expert guidance which is being missed by not being in school. There was citation of studies from English summer term, of Thailand, of the Netherlands, and one Wisconsin study as evidence that having school buildings open was safe.
A parent from Everett spoke of her own children in kindergarten and grade 6 missing school, saying, "it has to stop and it has to stop now." She spoke of a friend who had moved to New Hampshire for in-person learning, and of her nephew, who is five, crying daily.
A parent from Boston said she spoke for a group of other parents in Boston for "science based reopening for learning" and would support "any option" that would give the authority to the Commissioner to order full reopening. She said she was concerned about the waiver option, urging, "please don't listen excuses from the district" on reopening. Noting that both Fenway Park and the Garden will soon be open, she said, "if it's time for baseball and basketball, it's time to bring our kids back to school."
Somerville Teachers Union president Rami Bridge testified alongside Somerville School Committee chair Andre Green, urging the Board to reject the Commissioner's proposal. Bridge said that they should not allow the single perspective of the Commissioner to override those of "thousands" of school committee members, superintendents, teachers, parents, and local boards of health who had been working "tirelessly" to make local plans across the state. Bridge also noted that by CDC standards, only one district should have students in more than hybrid learning.
Green asked if anyone there knew the number of students that could fit into classrooms at his local schools, or of their air exchange rates; he expected not, though this is something with which he and others in his community have now become fluent. Noting that there is disagreement in his community, even likely on his committee, about ways forward, he said that those are disagreements based on Somerville that are "best answered by people by people immersed in those facts and accountable to its stakeholders." Green said, "Last June I came before this board asking for leadership and equity and policies that recognized longstanding physical inequities between districts. Instead we have gotten edicts and crumbs." He asked that they work with urban districts to move through and past the pandemic that "has hit, and has continued to hit" them harder.
Teresa English, a teacher at Lawrence High School whose children attend Billerica Public Schools, spoke of the differences between the approaches taken by two districts with which she is involved, differences "tailored to those communities." They treated each school differently and each building differently, meeting the needs of each student and staff member. She said she saw "progress and collaboration" after much trial and error, arguing it is "flat out wrong" at this point to push forward with this mandate. More state control, she said, would not be helpful, but would cause more difficulties.
The Commissioner noted the "225 pages" of guidance that the Department has released over the past year. He reminded the Board of the ten days of preparation that districts had this fall, saying "no other state in the country" had given teachers "that kind of time." He noted that districts had been required to submit three plans and had received subtantial federal aid. He announced that a new study would be released soon which retrospectively looked at reported case rates in Massachusetts schools that had been operating at six feet versus at three feet showing that there was a not a higher reported case rate in schools operating with students in closer proximity.
The Commissioner then brought forward a panel of three doctors to speak to the proposal: Sadfar Medina of Tri-River Family Health Center, Preeti Mehrotra of BIDMC, and Shira Doron of Tufts. One told of concerns of particular patients who were struggling with mental health issues; parents who were asking if their children had ADHD or were requesting increased dosage for children who had ADHD; "it is at school where the first signs of their struggle would have been noticed" and the school would have contacted the doctors. Another spoke of her nieces and nephews; she said, "I hope and want for them to thrive and I believe in person learning is critical to that." She emphasized the importance of consistent well-fitting mask wearing by all as crucial, adding, for our students to thrive "and our educators thrive" we should to return to schools with the urgency our families deserve. The third spoke of understanding that people are fearful, but that things exists along a continuum rather than being binary. The CDC says one is exposed after fifteen minutes at closer than six feet, but "things are not so black and white" in reality...[it's] more likely with increased time and increased proximity...it's complex; there are shades of grey."
Member Darlene Lombos noted that comparisons with other countries that had been much more proactive in working to control the virus from the beginning of the pandemic were not appropriate. She noted that other countries had, in particular, shut down more thoroughly, earlier, and more quickly. In response, the doctor said that schools thoroughout the world "tend to be in older buildings" and that mitigation efforts in those buildings had differed.
Member Amanda Fernández asked the doctors about the new variant which is "less forgiving of transgressions" and was told that they still respond to the same mitigation measures.
Member Michael Moriarty spoke of his experience working mental health facilities, saying "those are experiences that stay" with him. He had heard arguments that schools will not meet those needs and asked the doctors to respond to that argument. They responded that schools are part of young people's routines, that school "is a lifeline," and "without school their lives have been disrupted." Moriarty said that schools should provide supports for mental health but also that the Board should advocate for a stronger mental health system. It was inadequate prior to the pandemic; it is inadequate now; we "can't look to schools to provide that."
Member James Morton asked about the reliability of pooled testing as a strategy. He was told it provides a measure of "reassurance," though it is not something that is being done in the health care field.
Member Jasper Coughlin asked how long the state would be funding the pooled testing. Commissioner Riley said the state had extended funding through April 18. Coughlin asked if funding would be extended if high schools and middle schools were put back into session. Riley said districts would need to use other funding sources, like federal COVID relief, for any testing after that.
Coughlin further asked if the Commissioner had worked with school committees, superintendents, teachers, and others on this revised regulation. The Commissioner said he had spoken with the associations of superintendents and school committees, both of which "had some concerns," and he was working with doctors. Coughlin noted that he had been inclined to vote yes, but he'd received hundreds of emails and had some concerns.
Member Mary Ann Stewart observed that the classrooms that had successfully be running hybrid programs would effectively be doubling in size. She also asked, since masking is such an important strategy, about unmasking for lunch. The doctors acknowledged the concern about the "dedensification" of classrooms but that mitigation strategies were still effective; thus, unmasked periods would be of most concern. They did not comment further on mealtimes.
Stewart agreed that we didn't have enough mental health supports before the pandemic and continue not to. She said that to compare US response to European response "isn't a fair thing to do" as we had "an appalling lack of response for the better part of the year." She also noted, regarding the Commissioner's report that "we haven't been doing any kind of universal screening" and thus do not know about transmission in schools that have not. She concluded, "We still have a lot to learn" about this disease.
The Department then reviewed what the vote would mean. The Board had already granted the Commissioner the authority to ask for three plans; this vote would give him the authority to decide when the remote or hybrid plans would not fulfill the time on learning requirements.
Member Lombos asked about process: why the Board was being asekd to do this without going through the public comment process. She was told that they were being asked to do this as an emergency regulation, which would go into effect immediately, but would also open for public comment immediately, and come back for a permanent vote in three months.
Member Matt Hills said that he was "enthusiastically" a yes, that "we would have all these issues whenever we decide on this." He shared the concern of the Boston parent on waivers, saying they needed to be as narrow as possible. He said, "the way to get through these problems is to force the tradeoffs." He asked if a parent wishes to have their child in school five days a week, will the parent have that choice. He was told "that is the goal."
Member Paymon Rouhanifard asked that the middle and high school "move forward with urgency."
Member Marty West said he had "heard this as characterized as empowering [the Commissioner] as the unilateral czar" and asked the Commissioner to respond. Commissioner Riley said that districts had had the two weeks before school started to plan and that some schools were moving back to in-person already. He said that he wanted to "get back to a post-pandemic" reality.
Member Amanda Fernández said she had gotten "a thousand plus" emails and that she wanted "to acknowledge the pain being felt across the board by citizens of the Commonwealth due to COVID." In that light, she asked what guidance the Department would be issuing on social-emotional learning. The Commissioner responded, "as we've done in the past, we're sending out comprehensive guidance."
Stewart asked what the "actual plan" was to vaccinate educators. The Commissioner responded that the Biden administration did not required that educators be vaccinated before returning to buildings; the Governor announced this week that educators could receive vaccines beginning next week, though he "had heard" that CVS was offering them already.
Stewart said, "I personally don't think the emergency is in returning to in-person learning, I think the emergency is with the disease." Recalling earlier testimony of the what was viewed as a small cost of $5 per test, she noted that it would not be a small cost for a district the size of Worcester, for example. She said that students weren't going to be able to receive the vaccine until next year at the earliest and asked what the plan for that is, as some families may wish to remain remote even then. The Commissioner said that would be handled through the usual medical process. He further said "districts like Worcester are getting millions and millions of dollars" to which Stewart responded "and they have many issues, and the state has millions of unspent dollars as well." She further said, "we're not out of the woods; I'm not at all comfortable mandating schools go back in person...you and the Department need to work with districts...let's give them the support and resources they need, but let them make the decision."
Member Morton, who said he was participating remotely due to self-quarantining having been out of state for a funeral, asked if, in the Commissioner's view, the waiver process was for school committees to have "some measure" of local control. The Commissioner said that, while he recognized superintendents might wish to submit for waivers sooner rather than later, that the recommendation of the Department would be that waivers be voted by school committees prior to submission. He said, we "think they have and continue to have a role to play in what's best for their communities."
Morton also asked about additional mental health supports; Riley observed they had discussed this over the course of the year, and the Department would be sharing documents for assessing student mental health.
Member Lombos echoed that the pain of the state came through her emails, but she was encouraged by the amount of engagement. Of herself, she said, "I sit in the labor seat, which is also seen as the teacher seat," but it represents custodians, bus drivers, administrative staff, and also represents the grocery store workers: "That's this seat, too." She said she was hearing the need to go back to school buildings "but I'm also hearing, 'as safely as possible.'" Her seat, she said, was one that labor had fought for, and that seat had fought for workplace safety "for over a century now." Schools, she observed, are workplaces, too. She said that she would vote no, because I haven't been able to talk to all the people I want to" due to the quick process. Ulimately, she said, "it's about trust...we have a long way to go, y'all."
Member Rouhanifard said,"as a country, we really stink at finding a third way reality to complex social problems" and "that's how I see this"--as a third way. He says, "roughly 45% of districts have been safely open five days a week." He said, in his view, we "have failed a generation of children."
Secretary James Peyser said that he was among those who would have liked to do this sooner. He said that the research cited by the Commissioner "verifies and validates" the safety of schooling in-person. He said, "it makes sense to take up this measure... [as we are] entering a new phase of the pandemic as well" as caseload, hospitalizations and deaths are down. He said the regulation change was needed "to make sure that the loss and the damage that has been done is not allowed to continue any further."
On a roll call vote, the regulation was approved 8-3, with members Coughlin, Lombos, and Stewart opposed.