BOSTON (CBS/AP) — The top education official in Massachusetts is urging public school districts in the state's three largest cities to bring high-needs students back to the classroom for in-person learning.
Jeffrey Riley, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, ordered the Boston, Worcester and Springfield school districts in letters released Friday to submit within 10 days their plans to bring students with disabilities and special needs back to school.
"For these particularly vulnerable groups of students, it is vital to have a plan for providing in-person instruction as soon as possible," Riley wrote.
Riley did not specify when he would like classrooms to reopen.
Unsatisfactory responses could spark an audit "to assess overall efforts to provide in-person instruction and to ensure your remote learning program is consistent with state and federal laws and regulations," according to the letter.
Boston is providing in-person learning for fewer than 200 students at four schools, representing less than 1% of the more than 51,000 students in the system. Springfield and Worcester do not currently have any in-person instruction, according to the state.
Riley and Gov. Charlie Baker have urged districts to keep students in classrooms even if a community is designated high risk for coronavirus spread.
"Not being in school poses significant risks for kids, both related to COVID and related to other health concerns, like depression, anxiety, and others," Baker said earlier this month.
Worcester mom Mari Gonzalez is busy keeping up with a sophomore in high school, a second grader, and fostering a fourth grader with special needs. All while helping them learn remotely from home.
"With ADHD and PTSD, and trauma, she needs that one on one with the teacher," said Gonzalez of her foster child learning remotely in Worcester. "Do I want her back in school? Absolutely, but then I have to think about the safety of her health and the safety of everyone in our home. In Worcester, we're in the yellow and the numbers are not getting lower."
Riley and Baker have said districts should switch to remote education if there is evidence of in-school spread of the virus.
There have been 527 new COVID-19 cases among students and staff in Massachusetts schools in the last week, according to the latest data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
State education officials argue that schools are safe because transmission rates are low. DPH has sent the mobile response unit to 15 school districts in 13 different communities since early October. For context, there are approximately 450,000 students in some form of in-person learning each week, and more than 75,000 staff across the Commonwealth.
Seventy-seven percent of school districts are offering either fully in person or hybrid learning models, and 23 percent are fully remote.
The Worcester School Committee said Thursday it stood by a decision made last month to extend remote education into January so school buildings can be made safer.
"We have a plan, as it was stated last month. January 25, that's when the first group that will come back. That's when the schools will be ready with all the upgrades that we promised the teachers and the parents," said Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, during a school committee meeting Thursday.
Boston has assembled a task force to devise a plan for opening more classrooms to students with significant learning needs but has not released a timeline.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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