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12 Middlesex County superintendents urge state to provide ‘thoughtful plan’ before reopening elementary schools full time

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.
Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.Sam Doran/Pool/File 2020

The superintendents of 12 Middlesex County school districts say the Baker administration’s push for all elementary school students to return to full-time, in-person school in April has left many unanswered questions and concerns for local school leaders.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is slated to consider a request Friday from state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley that would allow him to force school districts to reopen their elementary schools fully in April, with older grades to follow.

Unveiled last month, the proposal amounted to a “declaration without a thoughtful plan,” the superintendents wrote in a recent letter to Riley, adding that his call for a full-time return “only exacerbates the challenges we face in schools and belies the current reality of the situation in which we find ourselves.”

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The letter was cosigned by superintendents from Arlington, Belmont, Burlington, Lexington, Melrose, Reading, Stoneham, Watertown, Wakefield, Wilmington, Winchester, and Woburn.

The superintendents asked that their unanswered questions be addressed before mandates are made for a full-time reopening. They said, for example, that there has been a lack of guidance around how to keep students safe during unmasked activities like lunch and how to decipher differing guidelines from local, state, and federal health officials.

They also asked for guidance on how to handle potential conflicts between the new state mandates and the already-existing agreements with local teachers unions and other bargaining units.

“Throughout the pandemic, most of the educational decision-making has been left to local districts, creating a high degree of variability. If the State had dictated a common starting point in August, making uniform adjustments now would be far less complicated and intrusive,” the superintendents wrote.

“The unintended consequence of allowing school systems to work individually has resulted in understandable variations from community to community,” they continued. “There was little guidance at the beginning of the school year about how districts would reopen, which may be why there are approximately 400,000 students in the State who have yet to return to their classrooms.”

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More than 80 percent of school districts in Massachusetts are offering some form of in-person learning — either in a hybrid model that includes some remote learning or in a full-time, in-person model, according to a spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Education. Several districts, including Pembroke, Cohasset, Hingham, and Hanover, are working on plans to bring elementary school students back in person this month.

Advocating for educators to be vaccinated as soon as possible, the Middlesex County superintendents called for leaders to be “thoughtful” about creating plans for public school employees to be vaccinated.

Their letter was sent prior to Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement on Wednesday that K-12 and early educators, as well as child-care workers and other school staff members, can begin booking vaccine appointments at the state’s sites on March 11. Teachers are already able to sign up for appointments at 47 CVS pharmacies that receive vaccine doses from the federal government’s pharmacy program.

Baker also said the state plans to designate specific days at mass vaccination sites for educators to get vaccinated. The superintendents recommended that educators be vaccinated at a time that would not disrupt learning, such as Friday evenings from 2 to 8 p.m.

“A concrete vaccination timeline is not the only way to get students back to full-time, in-person learning,” they wrote, “but it certainly will facilitate the process for a full return of students.”

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Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.