Members of the Worcester School Committee on Thursday night stood by a decision to extend remote learning during the pandemic, as the district administration works to respond to a request for more information from Massachusetts education officials.
Superintendent Maureen Binienda told committee members during Thursday’s meeting that the district received a letter from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education seeking more information about when students are expected to return to classrooms. Other districts that are using online learning models also got a letter, Binienda said.
Last month, the committee voted to push back the start of a hybrid learning model as updates to school HVAC systems were ongoing. Members had vowed to not bring back students until buildings are safe, and also noted rising coronavirus rates in the community, which continue to increase. Students with the highest level of needs are slated to return to school buildings on Jan. 25, while other students are expected to return later.
Gov. Charlie Baker, Education Secretary James Peyser and DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley in November urged districts to bring students into classrooms unless there is evidence of in-school spread of coronavirus.
“We did receive a letter this week, as did other districts who have been full remote with special needs students, stating that they would like us to send a plan within 10 days and share what is our plan for getting our Group C, special ed students, back in school,” Binienda said.
The district is working on a response that refers to the hybrid plan previously approved by the committee.
“We will be writing that report this weekend and giving it to the mayor on Monday to review. We will include in that report a copy of both the district and the school-level reopening transition plan,” Binienda said.
Mayor Joseph Petty, the chair of the committee, noted that decisions on schooling are not made lightly and that Binienda meets regularly with Worcester Medical Director Dr. Michael Hirsh.
“I’m not disagreeing with the [DESE] commissioner. Worcester, I think, is different than some other communities and if I could bring everybody back I would. I would bring definitely back Group C,” Petty said. “I think it’s a bigger mistake to have jump-starts and start over again.”
Member Tracy O’Connell Novick noted that each day, multiple districts across the state have shifted learning plans and said disruption of the educational process is harmful to children’s learning.
“I do very much, Mr. Chair, resent the amount of pressure that the department and the state are putting on schools right now. I do not think that their primary concern right now is actually the education of our children. I think they’re trying to win a point,” Novick said.
Novick requested that Petty write and submit a cover letter that includes information about the positivity rate in Worcester, the communicability of coronavirus and its long-term effects.
Committee members said Thursday that they are glad Worcester students have not had to flip-flop between hybrid and remote models and stand by the decision to extend remote learning into January.
“We’ve been consistent from the beginning,” member John Monfredo said. “We haven’t had to pivot as many of the surrounding towns have and really disrupt the education of our students.”
From Sept. 10 to Dec. 2, there have been 103 students and 72 staff members with COVID, according to Binienda. The staff members included 34 who work remotely and 38 who work in buildings. The student cases are self-reported, Binienda noted, and therefore may not accurately reflect the total number of students in the district who have tested positive.
Most public schools in Massachusetts have some form of in-person learning. Earlier this fall, at least two districts were audited by DESE for having remote education models despite low coronavirus rates in their communities. No additional districts have been audited since, officials said on Thursday.
On Thursday morning, officials announced that a coronavirus field hospital will be opening this weekend at the DCU Center to treat patients. Hours later, City Manager Edward Agustus Jr. announced that Worcester saw 1,012 new COVID-19 cases over an eight-day period from Thanksgiving through Thursday.