Counter to the sentiment in Everett, State Education Secretary Jim Peyser told a group of educators last Friday that all school districts should make it a goal to get students back in school, even before a COVID-19 vaccine is available to teachers.
Peyser was featured as a keynote speaker at the Rennie Center’s program last Friday for innovation in education. Of course, top on everyone’s mind was about schooling and getting kids in school.
That has been a paramount issue in Everett, and recently teachers and the district agreed on a plan for part-time in-person learning – known as hybrid education – that centered on getting teachers vaccinated before that return. The plan was shot down by Gov. Charlie Baker late last week, and Peyser said he doesn’t believe it’s important to get vaccinated before a return.
Instead, he said the education gaps that are growing, particularly in all-remote, low income communities like Everett, should be the top thing on everyone’s minds.
“Let me be clear, we do not think schools should wait for testing or vaccines to be deployed before bringing their students back into classrooms for in-person instruction,” he said. “As you all know this issue isn’t only about COVID. It’s about educational progress, mental health, social-emotional development and equity. Our children, especially those in traditionally underserved communities and high-needs students, are suffering the most – creating developmental losses and exacerbating achievement gaps. For these reasons we need to open up our classrooms for as many children as possible as soon as possible.”
Peyser said that the rollout of COVID-19 education has shown remarkable foresight, innovation, caring and planning. However, he said all-remote schooling in underserved communities has not been a highlight – despite the accolades often discussed in Everett and by the Everett Teachers Association (ETA).
He said these gaps and the limitations of all-remote schooling are reason enough to get back into the classroom.
“It doesn’t mean everything has gone smoothly or that there haven’t been significant gaps and setbacks especially in regard to student learning and development and particularly in those communities that have been providing mostly remote instruction throughout most of the school year so far,” he said.
“There is an ever growing body of evidence and first-hand experience here in Massachusetts and across the country and the world that schools are safe spaces for children and adults when the standard health safety protocols are followed.
“Even in communities with higher level of COVID cases, there is little or no evidence of in school transmission with various studies showing rates for students who are in school are lower than for kids that are learning at home,” he continued.
Returning to school, he said, should not be a monetary issue.
He said the CARES Act originally funded $200 million in the state for schools, and Gov. Baker added another $200 million of that for schools returning to in-person education.
Of that, $170 million has yet to be drawn down by school districts to be used to return kids to school. He said there is also another $734 million in school-district funding on the way to Massachusetts as part of the December federal Stimulus plan.
He said there is plenty of money available or coming to districts that would allow costs not to be a barrier to returning to the classroom.
He also touched on the touchy subject of testing and vaccinations for teachers, noting they are deemed essential workers, but would not be moved up in the Phase 2 plan already outlined.
“We are rolling out a first in the nation statewide testing program for students and staff to provide for even more support for instruction,” he said. “The Governor has dedicated those working in early education and schools as essential workers in order to prioritize them for the vaccine in the Phase 2 of the vaccine plan.”
He said there is no evidence to suggest those working in schools are at a higher risk based on the numbers from those returning to in-person learning.
As a consequence of an all-remote year, Peyser said they are prioritizing summer learning programs in cities like Everett. They will be known as Acceleration Academies and will provide catch-up – likely in person – education for students who are struggling and have struggled through a remote education year.
“This is not a one and done challenge,” he said. “For many students it will take years of this effort to get back on track.”
His comments were preceded by a strong call from Gov. Charlie Baker for kids to return to schools during his State of the State Address on Jan. 26.
“Study after study makes clear that kids need to be in school,” he said. “Their educational and emotional development depends on it. And while in person learning is especially challenging during this time, many schools have found a way to get it done. Relying on state guidance, as well as federal and state funding, many special education programs, early education providers and some school districts have been able to make in person education work safely since the fall.”
He used the example of parochial schools in the state, which have largely been open since last fall for in-person learning. He said 45,000 kids have been attending school in-person since mid-August.
“To encourage more public school districts to reopen their classrooms, we’ve been working with a number of lab partners to develop a weekly Covid testing program for kids, teachers and staff,” he said. “The goal is to get as many kids as possible back in the classroom as soon as possible. This first-in-the-nation Covid testing program will help more school districts make the call to offer full time, in person instruction now.”