Commish correct to put truant school districts on notice

The state’s education commissioner wants 16 online-only school districts to do what every other system in the state has done: lay out a plan for getting their students back in the classroom.

These districts offer remote-only instruction despite having COVID-19 transmission rates in the lowest risk categories in the state’s assessment system.

“In light of the stark discrepancy between local public-health data and your reopening plan, I am requesting a timeline by which you anticipate providing in-person instruction for the majority of your students,” wrote Jeffrey Riley, commissioner of the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, on Friday to those 16 remote-only districts.

Riley gave the districts 10 calendar days to respond.

In August, the state unveiled a color-coded measurement system, based on average daily COVID-19 rates over a two-week period, tied to the school-reopening process.

It assigns each municipality a color based on the number of new cases per 100,000 residents: red for an average daily case rate of more than eight per 100,000, yellow for four to eight, and green for fewer than four. Cities and towns with fewer than five cases in the two-week period, regardless of the rate, are in the “gray’’ or “unshaded’’ category.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, green and gray communities were expected to offer full-time, in-person instruction. The department allowed for remote learning in red municipalities and a hybrid setup in the yellow areas.

The targeted districts, scattered across the state, include Amesbury, Bourne, Boxford, East Longmeadow, Gardner, Pittsfield, Provincetown, West Springfield, Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public, Hoosac Valley Regional, Gill-Montague, Mohawk Trail, Mohawk Trail/Hawlemont, Manchester Essex Regional, Belmont, and Watertown.

They’re all either in the green or gray zones for coronavirus community transmission levels.

Not surprising, the commissioner’s directive drew the ire of the state’s largest teachers union.

“Having failed to provide adequate guidance or state support to make it possible for our public schools to open safely, State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and Governor Charlie Baker have the gall to threaten 16 communities that have wisely chosen not to pursue in-person learning at this time,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said in a statement.

“It is naive at best and reckless at worst to assume that the coronavirus somehow does not travel across municipal borders,” Najimy said.

We don’t see many urban school districts on this list, which could have other outstanding issues complicating in-person instruction timetables. The majority are made up of suburban and rural communities.

There’s no reason these districts can’t formulate an outline for returning as many students as possible to the classroom, given public-health and social-distancing guidelines.

But at this point, Commissioner Riley shouldn’t expect to see a majority of the state’s students back in school any time soon. Most systems simply don’t have the space to accommodate them in this current COVID-19 environment.

However, the foot-dragging by these 16 districts can’t be tolerated.

For all the criticism leveled at Lowell School Superintendent Joel Boyd, he and his staff were able to create both fully in-person and remote-instruction options, which as of Sept. 28, will see roughly 25% of the city’s 14,000-plus students back in school.

If a diverse, multicultural school system like Lowell can formulate school-opening plans and guidelines for additional in-school participation based on evolving health metrics, there’s no reason these 16 delinquent school systems should be given a free pass.

We can only conclude that union influence in these districts have prevailed so far over a common-sense response to the commissioner’s reasonable request.


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