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Baker: Education Commissioner's Letter 'Not Bullying'
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
09:30PM / Thursday, September 24, 2020
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BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley on Thursday pushed back against the charge that the state was pressuring school districts to return to in-person instruction despite local preferences.
Appearing with Baker at his regular press availability, Riley twice declined to say what enforcement actions the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will take against more than a dozen districts who last week received a letter challenging their preference for remote learning to start the year.
"I think we're going to wait and see what happens," Riley said when asked if DESE would "force the hands" of districts who continue to shy away from hybrid or in-person instruction models. "We're going to wait for the written responses and see what next steps are from there."
Moments later, Riley was asked a second time whether those written responses could lead to a mandate from the commonwealth.
"I think we're going to assess where we are," he said. "We're going to give these people time to send us some documentation. And we'll make some decisions then."
Baker and Riley both emphasized the fact that the majority of Massachusetts communities — including those in school districts targeted by Riley — are currently categorized "green" or "gray" in the commonwealth's community level data map.
Baker said school districts should look at three weeks of data from that map before determining whether to make a change in their instruction model, for example, waiting to see three weeks of "red" (for high rates of COVID-19 transmission) before moving from in-person or hybrid to fully remote learning.
When that Department of Public Health map was updated on Wednesday evening, two Berkshire County communities — Williamstown and Great Barrington — had moved from "gray" (meaning fewer than five reported cases) to yellow (meaning four to eight cases per 100,000 residents). The rest of the county currently is gray, including Pittsfield, Cheshire and Adams; the Pittsfield Public Schools, Hoosac Valley and the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School were among those that last week received a letter from Riley asking to explain their reasons for going remote to start the year.
"I think the metric is a living metric," Riley said. "I think we're going to be in this situation all year long. It would not surprise me if we were to look during the year about where people are to make sure people are lined up. This goes both ways, too. If you're a ‘red' district for three weeks or more, our recommendation is that you go to remote. We're asking people to really follow what the doctors built for us."
Baker was asked whether the commissioner's letter runs contrary to the governor's own statements this summer about a desire for local control.
In early August, Baker said, "We like local government, right? What we've tried to say from the beginning on this stuff is we will provide guidance and financial resources, which we have done, to our colleagues in local government, and then we really wanted them to make the best decision on behalf of their community."
On Thursday, he said the commonwealth had given local school districts money to help facilitate the start of in-person instruction and guidance that indicates in-person instruction is possible in most of those districts.
"I don't think the messages are mixed," Baker said. "We said we were going to provide them with a ton of data and guidance, which Commissioner Riley and the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Mass Department of Public Health worked very hard on developing. We sent $710 million to cities and towns and $400 million to school districts to help them make whatever investments they felt they needed to make to prepare for reopening.
"I think the question the commissioner is asking here, which is, 'if you are a low-risk district and you've been a low-risk district now for eight weeks and you have no plans to return to in-person learning when most people in the education and the public health and the pediatric community all believe that in-person learning, especially for young kids, is a critical part of their educational and social development, we want to know what your plan is to get back.'
"I don't think that's bullying. I think it's a perfectly appropriate question to ask on behalf of the people of those communities and, especially, the kids."
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