Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker continued Thursday to push schools with low COVID-19 transmission rates to bring kids back into the classrooms.
"It's safe for these students and teachers to return to in-person learning," he said at a press conference. "Our administration is clear in the expectation that students should return to the classroom."
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Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley reiterated that the state is asking districts to make their decisions based on three weeks worth of data from the state's color-coded COVID-19 risk assessment model, which assigns the colors of green or gray to lower-risk areas.
"We know the possibility of a second spike exists, but while we are in a situation where a district has been green or gray for many weeks, we are asking districts to bring kids back to school in-person, or in a hybrid model," Riley said. "It would be unfortunate if later in the year a district had to go remote because the virus spiked back up in their community and they recognize 'Wow, we could have had our kids back on for a couple months, or maybe even six months.' "
Thursday's press conference came one day after Baker 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 on Wednesday. "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."
Those comments came after 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 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.
Watertown is one of the communities that received a letter from Riley. Deb King, President of the Watertown Educators Associations, told NBC10 Boston one reason why her district is still remote is that they are still waiting on screens and air purifiers to make buildings safer -- something the safe left up to the districts.
"If you wanted to mandate the reopening of schools why didn't you," King asked.
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 Wednesday, 15 cities and towns in Massachusetts were colored red.
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.
State House News Service contributed to this report.