READING - Reading easily meets the COVID-19 transmission threshold needed for cities and towns to proceed with a hybrid school reopening as planned on Sept. 16.
In standards set on Tuesday, days after Reading and many neighboring communities had already made critical reopening decisions, officials from the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) detailed new thresholds for determining when students should float between hybrid and full-remote learning models.
In particular, DESE now expects communities like Reading to shift to a full remote learning plan whenever the number of active COVID-19 cases over a two-week reporting window exceeds 8 cases per 100,000 residents. The standard is linked to new state metrics and an associated color-coded map unveiled by Governor Charles Baker and the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) earlier this week.
Presently, Reading only has four total active COVID-19 cases, which leaves it with a “white” or the best classification possible under the new public health metric. The designation means that Reading’s case count is so low, it can’t be assigned a meaningful incidence rate number.
"It is our expectation that districts’ learning models will follow this color-coded metric unless there are extenuating circumstances identified after consultation with local boards of health. This includes reviewing additional metrics, such as whether cases are increasing or decreasing, the local test positivity rate, and other contextual factors," DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley explained in an Aug. 11 memo.
Though DESE reportedly issued the new reopening standards on Tuesday, the three-page advisory from Riley just became available for public inspection.
Some critics are frustrated by the timing of the guidance, which was released the day after DESE had ordered school districts across the state to render a final decision about whether students would return to the classroom next month under hybrid models.
Reading’s School Committee, which last week voted to implement a hybrid school reopening in which students will return to the classroom by age group over a weeks-long timeframe, was aware before the vote of DESE’s intentions to release new metrics.
However, in the absence of that information, School Committee member Tom Wise convinced his peers to adopt their own protocol for determining when the community would transition between hybrid and full-remote or at-home learning schedules. The Reading-based standard, which per the School Committee vote is now likely to be replaced by the superseding set of DESE criterion, had linked the hybrid and remote learning models to phases of the state’s economic reopening plan.
At the time, Wise argued local leaders had an obligation to set standards to assure families and school workers that a plan is in place to revert back to a remote learning model in the event of a new COVID-19 outbreak. Along similar lines, town officials also wanted to establish parameters around floating back into a hybrid plan — should schools be shuttered at some point this year due to virus cases.
State officials say the new color-coded mapping system will make it much easier for municipalities to gauge when new COVID-19 clusters warrant the temporary or permanent closure of school facilities. Other decisions, such as business closures, new movement and mask restrictions, and the release of state funding and resources to combat COVID-19 hotspots, will also be based upon the weekly DPH community reports.
The new statewide metrics, to be embedded in reports released every Wednesday afternoon, will also include community-level information on total case counts, new cases over the past 14 days, the number of residents being tested, and the percentage of individuals who test positive during a two-week window.
However, school learning decisions will be largely based on a color-coded ranking — white, green, yellow, or red — that’s based upon the average daily incidence rate per 100,000 residents over the previous 14 days.
Communities with less than five total cases will be assigned a white color, while incidence rates of under four are coded green. Yellow classifications are for cities and towns with an incidence rate of between 4 and 8, while the worst ranking, a red designation, will be assigned to any community with an incidence rate of eight or higher.
Currently, only four cities in the state — Lynn, Revere, Everett, and Chelsea — are designated as “red” communities.
According to DESE, school districts with the worst classification should automatically be shifting to a full-remote learning program. Those with a yellow or better are encouraged to stick with a hybrid model, though DESE does grant local school officials some leeway to transition into a remote learning setting after consulting their local Board of Health.
"While districts and schools may choose to make immediate adjustments to initial fall reopening plans based on this data, districts may also wait for multiple data reports and allow for further time for consultation before making these updates," Riley advised area superintendents and School Committees in his Tuesday memo.
"We understand that local school committees and governing boards, working with district and school leaders, have recently finalized or are about to finalize initial fall reopening plans. We expect these updated metrics and related guidance will support your decision-making both for school reopening and throughout the year if we encounter changing circumstances," the education commissioner later remarked.