Provincetown School Superintendent Suzanne Scallion said the state schools chief has apologized for including her district on a list of 16 districts who risk a possible audit for violating student learning time regulations.
Scallion said she spoke with Jeffrey Riley, the state’s education commissioner, Tuesday morning about the reason for the remote start Sept. 16 and a phased plan for returning to Provincetown school buildings.
“I discussed our decision to delay opening (in person) until a few weeks after Labor Day in the event there were any kind of spikes from all the tourists in our dense downtown on Commercial Street,” Scallion said.
“He liked our plan, and he apologized,” she added.
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis said the Provincetown school district “did not properly update their reopening plan with the Department.”
“We will be asking the school committee chairperson to submit a response to the letter within 10 days. This will allow them to update their plan on file with DESE, which should resolve the issue.”
DESE officials said districts that received the letter either had not indicated a date for returning to school in person or were returning later in the fall, as late as November.
Riley included the Provincetown and Bourne school districts among the 16 districts in a Sept. 18 letter questioning why they opened remotely when COVID-19 transmission rates are low in their communities.
Riley told the districts they had 10 calendar days to submit a timeline for resuming in-person instruction, and said their responses “may trigger an audit” if DESE determined the district’s learning models to be inadequate.
The school districts are all in communities where transmission rates have consistently been in the lowest risk range — green or gray — on a color-coded report created by the state Department of Public Health, Riley wrote.
“Given your community’s designation of green or gray, I am concerned that the school committee has voted to keep most students learning remotely for the start of the 2021 school year,” Riley said in the letter.
“We have recommended remote learning only for those municipalities receiving a “red” designation three weeks in a row,” Riley wrote.
The letter drew a sharp retort from Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy for interfering with school committees’ democratic process “to determine what is best for their students, educators and residents.”
Najimy accused Riley and DESE of bullying schools and of using “pressure tactics to push” an agenda favored by Gov. Charlie Baker.
“The academic year is off to a chaotic start, with several schools — including some in communities with low infection rates — forced to close because of COVID-19 cases,” Najimy said.
“Riley and Baker are largely responsible for the chaotic start because of their failure to provide adequate guidance or necessary supports,” she said.
DESE has prioritized a return to in-person learning following the mid-March shutdown of school buildings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which peaked in April and early May.
The department’s June 25 report on initial fall reopening guidance said educational and medical groups concede “we must keep in mind not only the risks associated with COVID-19 for in-person school programs, but also the known challenges and consequences of keeping students out of school,” Riley said in his Sept. 18 letter.
Several other Cape school districts, including Barnstable, Truro and Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, included remote start in school reopening plans submitted to DESE in August.
Scallion said she didn’t know why Provincetown and Bourne were the only Cape school districts to receive Riley’s letter. She wondered if it was because her district’s plan for a staged reopening did not include a specific date to return to the school buildings.
The Provincetown School Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the next phase, which starts Oct. 5, Scallion said.
“We are proposing a mixed model of in person and hybrid,” Scallion said.
COVID-19 cases already have arisen among school staff and students.
It was reported earlier this month that Bourne School Superintendent Kerri Anne Quinlan-Zhou and a handful of central office employees were in quarantine after having close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.
The Bourne Public Schools started classes remotely Sept. 16. Quinlan-Zhou has said the school planned to pursue a staged reopening using health data and other guidance for a return to in-person classes.
“Although we did not anticipate receiving a letter from Commissioner Riley, it has not changed how we are steadily proceeding,” she said in an email Tuesday.
“It has always been our intention to bring students back into in-person learning as soon as possible,” Quinlan-Zhou said. “We are progressing with our reopening plan and are on schedule to bring the ‘high needs’ student population back to in person learning” Tuesday.
Quinlan-Zhou said the school district plans to roll out the hybrid phase part of the plan to families after vetting final details with staff.
Late Friday night, the Monomoy Regional School District was notified that a Monomoy Regional High School student had tested positive for COVID-19.
The news came on the heels of the school reopening in-person Sept. 14, but Monomoy Regional School Superintendent Scott Carpenter said it appears from reports from the family and contact tracers the student did not contract COVID-19 at school.
Provincetown’s goal all along has been to get beyond the contagion period following Labor Day before setting a return to the school buildings.
“We wanted at least two weeks of data,” Scallion said. “The data is as good as it could be, especially after such big crowds on Labor Day.”
Scallion said Riley is no longer requiring Provincetown school officials to submit an official timeline for the return to school buildings.
“He said just shoot me a paragraph, and you’re good,” Scallion said.
“I stand by our plan. I’m proud of our plan,” she said, noting that a teacher in the district is the parent of three adult children who were part of a recent cluster of cases in Chatham.
“At the end of the day, life matters most,” she said.
Follow Cynthia McCormick on Twitter: @Cmccormickcct.