BOSTON (SHNS) – With nearly every public school in Massachusetts again offering full-time in-person learning as the second school year shaded by the coronavirus pandemic winds down, state education officials are making plans to ensure that kids aren’t falling behind and some parents remain worried about the impacts mandated masking and other COVID-19 restrictions have on students’ wellness.
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said Tuesday that all elementary and middle schools in Massachusetts are now offering full-time in-person learning and 99 percent of high schools met his deadline of May 17 to do the same. In March, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to give Riley the authority to decide when full and partial remote schooling would no longer count toward student learning time requirements amid the administration’s push to get more kids back into classrooms.
“I know that this was a split vote when the vote was taken in March to grant me the authority and we’ll be voting on a final vote later, but I do think at this time that we made the right decision to move forward,” Riley said Tuesday, referencing the 8-3 vote to preliminarily approve the power.
When Riley first sought the authorization to effectively require that districts end fully remote learning, he estimated that 300,000 students across Massachusetts were enrolled in a district that was fully remote. For the week from May 13 through 19, school districts reported 377 new coronavirus cases among students learning in-person, and 30 new infections among staff with building access.
Later during Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted after a brief discussion to finalize the student learning time amendments it adopted on an emergency basis in early March. Tuesday’s vote appeared to have been unanimous — Chairwoman Katherine Craven called, “all in favor?” and she and many others in the room responded, “aye.” The chairwoman never called for anyone who wished to vote in opposition and simply said, “thank you” before moving on with the agenda.
With more than a year of experience adapting to and operating under changing COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines, school systems and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education are now working to “create a clear vision and plan for what teaching and learning will look like moving forward,” Riley said in a memo ahead of a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting about DESE’s Academic Excellence Roadmap.
“While school and district leaders, educators, students, and families have demonstrated ingenuity and perseverance over the last year and have gained many new skills and experiences, school and district leaders are grappling with many questions, from how to create an instructional plan that meets students’ varied needs to how to keep equity at the center of all decisions,” Riley wrote in a pre-meeting briefing memo.
He added, “Grounded in evidence-based practices, the Roadmap is designed to help schools and districts create an academic plan for the 2021-22 school year, and it provides month-by-month priority actions to implement the plan and monitor progress. The Roadmap also directs users to DESE resources for acceleration, such as literacy screeners, math acceleration programs, a family engagement guide, and resources for establishing a multi-tiered system of support.”
DESE plans to hold webinars to detail how educators and school leaders can put the roadmap into practice early this summer and to offer professional development opportunities related to the roadmap this summer and fall.
Meanwhile, parents and advocacy organizations on Tuesday pressed the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to ease masking requirements and to take a wider view of student wellness. As of May 18, masks are no longer required for student outdoor activities like recess and youth sports, and DESE guidance was updated to allow for the sharing of objects in classrooms.
Students and adults in the school are still required to wear masks while indoors.
Beth Humberd, an Andover parent and organizer with Bring Kids Back MA, said parents aligned with her organization are concerned that the state’s COVID-19 requirements for schools remain more heavy-handed than is warranted for children and are not being relaxed evenly across districts.
“We’re concerned that even as some of this guidance is updated, these protocols are sticky; they will take far longer to roll back than they did to implement. We concerned with the narrative that ‘the kids don’t seem to mind’ when in fact we have no way of knowing what practices are remaining and where. We are concerned that the pace of unraveling these protocols does not reflect the urgency associated with children’s wellness and mental health and is a stark contrast to how quickly these protocols were implemented when the urgency focused on COVID safety,” she said during the board’s public comment period. “We are concerned that the tradition of local control has, frankly, gotten out of control when it comes to districts being able to set their own public health guidelines that go above and beyond state guidance, that aren’t grounded in the latest evidence and that fail to consider the tradeoffs for children.”
During Tuesday’s board meeting, a protest took place just outside with adults and children holding signs calling for the end of the mask mandate. Even after May 29, when the state’s mask requirement ends in most settings, students and school staff will still be required to wear a mask indoors.
Tuesday’s board meeting also featured a presentation on federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Response (ESSER) funding, the latest round of which is expected to benefit DESE and Massachusetts districts to the tune of about $1.8 billion.
Keri Rodrigues of Massachusetts Parents United presented results from a survey that included questions about how ESSER money should be spent and told the board that her organization will be keeping a close eye on where the money goes.
“A lot of parent concerns overwhelmingly relate to spending around high-speed internet and equipment concerns, providing … mental health support, providing individualized learning plans for students based on specific needs, and providing additional academic instruction,” she said.
Mass. Parents United, Rodrigues said, will work with a research lab at Georgetown University to conduct its own analysis of district and state use of ESSER funds over the next two years. She said the organization will be “assigning our own grades and assessments on a quarterly basis.”