By Beth Germano

BOSTON (CBS) – The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 8-3 to allow Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to force elementary schools to reopen April 5, and phase in in-person learning. “We have seen the numbers go way down, vaccines and the promise of vaccines go way up. Now is the time to move children into classrooms more robustly,” Riley told the board at a Friday afternoon hearing.

He says the science supports it and there’s no evidence of COVID spread in schools. Chelsea Middle School principal Michael Talbot says he supports reopening but in a city that’s been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, students have been learning remotely for nearly a year.

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“We miss our kids. I am ready to have people back in the building again, but want to make sure staff is safe and comfortable and to me the first thing with that is having them vaccinated,” said Talbot.

At least 80 percent of school districts have some form of in-person learning already, but testimony revealed how communities are split over a complete return to the classroom. “If it’s time for baseball and basketball it’s beyond time for students to be in school,” said the parent of a Boston school student.

But a Somerville school teacher said, “We know what’s best for our community and commissioner Riley does not.”

Chelsea’s classrooms have been ready with distancing, air purifiers and signage to wear masks. But with the city only recently moving into the yellow zone, Superintendent Almi Abeyta says she’ll seek a waiver to move the reopening more slowly. “It would be a jump for us in Chelsea,” Abeyta said. “I’m also hopeful but I do believe we can do it. It might take us longer.”

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School districts got the word last week about the push to fully reopen, which Reading Superintendent John Doherty says he supports but would like his own timeline. “We’re now being told that you now very quickly have to undo everything you did to get everyone back,” Doherty said.

Commissioner Riley pledged to support districts and help them with guidance. He did not set a timeline beyond April 5 for when older grades will be phased in. Parents still have the option of keeping their children out of the classroom and learning remotely.

Governor Charlie Baker said he looks forward to getting all students back to in-person learning soon.

“Learning in the classroom is the best and safest place for students to be with proper safety protocols, and our administration is pleased that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took this step to get more kids back into the classroom,” Baker said. “The data is clear that students learning in the classroom can be done safely and it is vital to their emotional and intellectual health.”

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Massachusetts educators, child care workers and school staff can sign up for COVID vaccine appointments starting Thursday, March 11.

Beth Germano