Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A letter to my delegation regarding the Commissioner's drive back to buildings

 Good morning, Senators and Representatives,

I'm writing to you today from my seat on the Worcester School Committee, to plead with you as members of the co-equal branch of government to intervene in Governor Baker and Commissioner Riley's warping of executive branch authority in the drive back to school buildings.

I awoke this morning feeling ill that the executive branch, which has so mismanaged nearly every aspect of the state response to this pandemic now believes it has both the authority and the knowledge to push children back into classrooms in clear defiance of both local best practices and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

As you may be aware, the Commissioner plans to base his request for this authority on the time on learning regulations; those are 603 CMR 27.00, which have already been revised twice during the pandemic: once to call for the three part plans that were due in August, and a second time to require specific amounts of live instruction for both remote and hybrid models of learning. In both prior cases, the Commissioner did not consult with the field ahead, and both the Commissioner and Board ignored the objections of those on the local level that such regulations did not best serve the health and educational needs of their students. It appears clear that he is poised to do so again with this next revision.

I would note that 603 CMR 27.00 is based on Mass General Law Ch. 69, sec. 1B, which generally outlines the authorities of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and sec. 1G, which simply states: "The board shall establish the minimum length for a school day and the minimum number of days in the school year."

There is little in these sections that appear to give the Board the authority to regulate the method of instruction, let alone that it must be delivered in person in school buildings during a pandemic. I find it difficult to believe that this was the intent of the Legislature in legislating this authority to the executive branch to carry out via regulation. 

Moreover, the notion that education is only proper in such settings is belied by the Board's authorization of two virtual schools that have been operating in Massachusetts for some years. The Board not only recognizes remote instruction as valid; it has created and authorized such methods.

I could speak at length about the ways in which the Governor and the Department have mismanaged the state's response to the pandemic, but I suspect your inbox is filled with such emails; nonetheless, please call me if you'd like to hear more. I will say, though, that the state has never recovered from the weekend nearly a year ago when every single superintendent in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts closed their schools before the Governor made any announcement. Districts moved to feed students, to get connections to students, to ensure their well being, and the Commissioner demanded plans, and changed course, and asked for things that were patently impossible.

It is not physically possible, even at three feet--a policy explicitly not in line with CDC guidance--for Worcester to return all of our elementary students back to buildings. And I do not want an exception from a new regulation for Worcester. I want regulations that recognize the realities of my districts and districts like mine; I want plans to include us from the beginning.

I know that I do not need to remind any of that a year and a half ago, both chambers unanimously passed the Student Opportunity Act. That explicitly recognized that the needs of students in cities like Worcester are different and greater than those in our wealthier suburban neighbors. The experiences of our students during this pandemic--the losses of family members, the struggles with illness, the fears over job losses and homelessness--have explicitly not been part of this administration's response to the pandemic, however. Had we started our response there--with Worcester, with Chelsea, with Lawrence--we would have had a very different result. 

But here we are.

I do not trust, and I have been given no reason to trust, the executive branch on education during this pandemic.   

I ask that you as co-equal partners in government step up for the students, the families, the educators in my district. 

Thank you for your time. As always, I would be glad to give any of you time to discuss this further.

Tracy Novick


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