Amplifying his administration's desire to see more children return to school, Gov. Charlie Baker is turning up the pressure on cities and towns with low COVID-19 transmission rates, urging them to stick with their plans for in-person learning and not make snap decisions based on a single party or cluster of infections.
Baker on Wednesday chided districts that opted to begin the school year with remote-only learning despite very small infection rates in their communities, telling them that the science supports a return to the classroom.
"Local officials run their local schools. We understand that," Baker said at a news conference in Lowell. "But the state has an obligation to ensure that local officials are providing the best possible education in these difficult circumstances to kids in their communities."
The governor's comments came after Education Commission Jeff Riley sent a letter to 16 school districts last Friday that fall into the state's lowest categories for COVID-19 but have not reopened schools for in-person learning. The state gave those districts 10 days to submit a plan to bring students back to school, and Riley said districts could be audited based on how they respond.
The reopening of schools has been fraught with confusion and anxiety. Teachers have expressed concern about returning to classrooms, parents are struggling to balance health risks against job responsibilities and house parties and other isolated outbreaks have caused some districts to rethink their strategies.
While Baker has deferred to local authorities on a lot of decisions about how to enforce state public health guidance during the pandemic, his administration has taken a more forceful approach when it comes to schooling.
Baker said that cities and towns can bounce up and down from week to week in the state's color-coded system for tracking virus transmission by municipality, but said local leaders should be looking at three weeks worth of data at a time.
"Getting kids back to the classroom, obviously, is something that we believe is critically important to our success and to our kids' success going forward, and it's very important for people in communities to look at three weeks' worth of data, which is four weeks worth of information, before they make decisions about changing their plans with respect to schools," Baker said.
Baker said that the public health data for most cities and towns supports a return to school, and districts should trust that the state's contact tracing program will help identify and quarantine anyone exposed to COVID-19 by a large gathering, party or other event without backtracking from school plans.
"In many cases, it's because of a single event or a single institution that creates that, and that's why we think it's important for people to look for trends, and trends don't happen in seven days," Baker said.
While the three-day average of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 is up 21% in the most recent Department of Public Health report, the positive test rate remains below 1%.
The effort by Baker to lean on lower-risk school districts to stick with or adopt plans for fully in-person or hybrid learning has intensified an already rocky relationship between the administration and the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Union President Merrie Najimy accused Baker and Riley of trying to "bully" local officials who made decisions on schooling through a "democratic process" in order to maintain low COVID-19 case counts.
"It is naive at best and reckless at worst to assume that the coronavirus somehow does not travel across municipal borders. The infection rate of any one community is irrelevant, as a school typically employs educators and staff from multiple cities and towns, and in some instances from out of state," Najimy said.
The state launched its color-coded municipal grading system in August based on average daily COVID-19 incidence rates over a two-week period, with the lowest gray or green color assigned to communities with an average of less than four daily cases per 100,000 residents. Communities with an average daily case rate of between four and eight per 100,000 residents are coded yellow, and higher than eight is red.
As of last Wednesday, 17 cities and towns in Massachusetts were colored red.
"Remote-only models should only be used for communities with three consistent weeks of red designations, unless there are extenuating circumstances," Baker said on Wednesday, with an update in the weekly report expected later in the day.
The 16 districts that received Riley's letter based on their remote-learning start to the school year were 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.