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As Reopening Nears, School Leaders Wish For More Timely Support From State

A finished clean room with stacked chairs in the science room at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School building in Boston's Mattapan, which were being cleaned for the reopening of school on July 9, 2020. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A finished clean room with stacked chairs in the science room at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School building in Boston's Mattapan, which were being cleaned for the reopening of school on July 9, 2020. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

With just a few weeks before the new school year starts, tensions over how to restart classes are rising in many districts. Superintendents are often caught in the middle and many are feeling frustrated by state guidance that they say is coming too late.

The latest source of tension is the state’s “expectation” that educators show up in their classrooms, even if their students are all remote.

“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” said Framingham Public Schools superintendent Robert Tremblay. The news broke in the middle of the district’s teacher negotiations.

“I’m not trying to challenge the state here, but we’re talking about a week away from teachers coming back,” Tremblay added.

Officials in Framingham have been trying to work out a compromise plan that would phase teachers back into the building slowly before their hybrid model took effect later this fall.

A lot of school leaders are frustrated right now, because they say this appears to be a pattern.

“What we found is that when we tried to wait for state guidance it was too little too late,” said Amy Proietti, the chair of the Greenfield School Committee.

Her district has run into this issue several times during the coronavirus closures, including graduation. Proietti said a week before a planned “drive-in” graduation ceremony at the fairgrounds, the state came out with recommendations for a different approach: either virtual or in the form of a car parade.

“And the outrage I felt,” she said, “I was like: how dare you wait.”

Then there was the color coded state map — showing when infection rates are low enough to reopen schools in person. It came out a few days before a deadline for districts to submit their reopening plans to the state, just as school committees were debating and voting on how their schools would reopen.

“We’re always a little bit late to the dance in trying to get this done,” Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said of the state’s guidance. “[Superintendents] have wanted to have much of the information that they’re provided probably two to three weeks earlier.”

He explained that the delay makes it hard for school leaders to coordinate with families, teachers and other stakeholders.

“The conflict between the interests of the parents and community and the interests of the union obviously creates a lot of tension points,” said Scott.

Scott added that weekly conferences with the Jeff Riley the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have helped, but a lot of superintendents still want more support and to have it sooner.

State Education Secretary Jim Peyser said the administration is working hard to get guidance out. They’re consulting with parents, school administrators and medical experts, which takes time.

“In a lot of respects the worst thing we could do would be to put out guidance quickly that wasn’t well considered,” said Peyser. “That we’d then have to revise or walk back or withdraw later and then just sort of jerk people around.”

There’s no playbook for how to run a school system during a pandemic according to Paul Reville, an education policy professor at Harvard and a former state education secretary. He argued the politics of reopening schools are complicated.

“It’s an unfolding crisis and as a result it’s an unfolding conversation between state leaders and key constituents who are effected by these policies,” said Reville.

But Reville and others think reopening schools should have been a higher priority for Governor Baker’s administration earlier in the spring.

“I felt the governor was absent in a lot of this,” said Scituate Superintendent William Burkhead.

Earlier this month his frustration reached a breaking point. So he took to Twitter and posted an open letter to Governor Baker.

“I feel superintendents (along with our school committees) have been thrown in

shark infested waters,” he wrote. “With each declaration by the governor that restricts advancement of the phases or contradicts his directive to open schools akin to throwing chum in the water.”

He went on to say that he was frustrated to see daily press conferences over the summer that focused mostly on business reopening.

“The Governor and his team of experts have developed a very thorough and sound phased in state reopening plan. In fact, it is working,” Burkhead wrote. “Why hasn’t that been done for education?”

Secretary Peyser said there was a lot going on behind the scenes over late spring and early summer. He has been meeting with the governor twice a week to go over reopening plans.

“Much of what has been going on with the reopening plans across the entire commonwealth and across the entire sector has put us in a place so that we can safely reopen schools in the fall,” he said.

Still, waiting for those pieces to get into place leaves a lot of school leaders feeling stranded. Framingham Superintendent Robert Tremblay explained that the benefit of having state guidance earlier in the local planning process would mean each district doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

“The extent you can handle it at the highest level, it doesn’t have that trickle down effect that requires every other municipality to have the same conversation with different outcomes,” said Tremblay.

He says having so many different reopening plans between districts is only adding to the tension between parents and educators.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 WBUR

Carrie began reporting from New Mexico in 2011, following environmental news, education and Native American issues. She’s worked with NPR’s Morning Edition, PRI’s The World, National Native News, and The Takeaway.
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