Open Letter to Commissioner Jeff Riley

Editors Note: The author has allowed us to publish this letter, which was sent to the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education July 23.

By Mara Power, Worcester

Sir,Thank you for releasing the updated plans for the reopening of schools this fall. It is clear that quite a lot of a research, collaboration, and work went into them.As a former long-time special educator in the Worcester Public Schools and parent of a young child in the same system, I confess that I am disappointed that teachers were not consulted further in the development of the reopening plans. I am also DEEPLY disappointed that talks between you and the MTA breaking down so early in the process. Teachers are essential to any reopening plan working and their concerns and proposals should be treated with more respect. I am quite sure that I am adding my voice to that of other current educators who have already contacted you. I am disappointed with the push to return to school; we are roughly six months into a pandemic that shut schools down in the spring.

I am unclear as to why guidance is being released to school districts so late in July, giving both districts and parents not a lot of time to prepare for what is coming. I wish that guidance had been released earlier in the summer, allowing districts and parents more time to prepare, and am saddened that we are in our current position. I am pleased that you have agreed to adjust the school calendar to allow for staff training and preparation. You cannot possibly be serious in your opinion that these days should go unpaid. Such an idea is foolish, disrespectful, and utterly out of the question. I confess that I was shocked and appalled that you expected schools to generate a plan to open fully in person. In what world did that seem appropriate in a state where the majority of our schools are overcrowded as is. Perhaps a more appropriate idea would have been to allow small districts who could possibly retain 6 feet of appropriate social distancing to open fully.

Reading the guidelines this morning, I was relieved that you included information about HVAC systems. I believe that this language should be strengthened to explicitly state that HVAC systems MUST be cleaned and filters MUST be upgraded. I also believe that you should further state that HVAC systems MUST be run for AT LEAST two hours before and after school. Further, for classrooms with one egress and no opening windows, I believe that you should consider requiring some type of HEPA air purification systems. You should also strongly consider mandating that schools be brought up to code.In regards to the opening of school, I am extremely concerned that our country has not yet squashed the first wave of the pandemic. While the Northeast still remains relatively low in infection rates in comparison to the rest of the country, the state is still experiencing new cases and deaths daily; in fact, there has been a slight uptick in this metric.

I believe that the opening of schools should be tied to no new cases and no deaths for 14 days. I also believe that you should very strongly consider a phased return to school, such as the one outlined by the MTA.Finally, I must, in good conscience, advocate for the immediate cancellation of MCAS testing. The state should be advocating the federal government to at the very least waive mandating testing this year. However, the state should ALSO be working to eliminate testing, as it is not an accurate metric of student progress, and is too heavily weighted in student graduation. I look forward to hearing your reply at your earliest convenience.

Best wishes, Mara Power