Fears of super-spreading schools are ‘somewhat unfounded,’ says Mass. education commissioner

The green-yellow-red stoplight metric announced in August by Gov. Charlie Baker was quickly adopted by state education officials as the way to determine if in-person, hybrid or remote learning is the best approach in a new school year marked by grave concerns over virus transmission possibilities. The governor a month later emphasized that districts should not react to single incidents, and should make decisions based on three weeks work of community virus data.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Riley said he expects the updates to its stoplight metric will reflect “more nuanced” information about virus cases. “We are in a time of evolving information,” he said. “We have always said that we will look at the evolving medical information and make updates to our guidance documents.”

Riley also credited the schools in Massachusetts, mentioning teachers and administrators specifically, for doing a “good job” with COVID-19 safety measures like social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing and people staying home if they are sick.

“I think we also really need to think about the fact that we have not seen robust transmission in our schools,” Riley said. “And what I mean by that is we’ve had schools open now for five or six weeks and what we’re seeing is, yes there have been cases, but they’ve been for the most part identified, isolated — people have got close contacts — and the educational programming has been able to continue. I think what we’re seeing both across the country and the state is that the fear that schools were going to be seen as super-spreading places has been somewhat unfounded.”

The virus that has so far killed more than 9,700 people in Massachusetts this year has emerged in some schools.

During the week of Oct. 1, which state officials are using for baseline data, there were 163 total cases reported in schools, including 106 students and 57 staff. In the week of Oct. 8, there were 160 cases — 92 students and 68 staff.

“Many of these are isolated instances,” Riley said. “And there’s been very few incidences of spread where we’ve had to call the mobile response unit.”

Riley in September sent a letter to 16 school districts that were in the state’s lowest categories for COVID-19 risk but had not reopened schools for at least some in-person learning. On Tuesday, he said most of the districts it contacted had progressed to in-person learning since then or are planning to, but mentioned two school districts, without naming them, that he said will be audited. The Globe has learned the two districts are East Longmeadow and Watertown.

State officials said the two districts did not significantly move their timeline for returning students to in-person or hybrid instruction, despite concerns raised by the commissioner. Their remote learning programs will be audited to determine if they are adhering to state and federal regulations that govern structured learning time, among other areas.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has issued more than 220 pages of guidance on reopening schools

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