Virus upends school year as districts try to regroup

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Temperature checks for students, desks placed six feet apart and staggered schedules are among the school reopening strategies deployed by other countries that Massachusetts officials have been discussing as they plan for what comes next after the next two months of remote learning.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday that schools will not reopen their classrooms to students this year. The decision extended a statewide closure that began in earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March and suddenly pushed students and teachers into the unfamiliar territory of remote learning, the method they’ll now use to finish the 2019-2020 school year.

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, who has two teenage children in public schools, said he understands remote learning presents challenges and that his department will work to “keep making things easier for families” and make the process work smoothly for students.

“This has been an unprecedented interruption to an entire generation of students, and we want to minimize learning loss as much as possible,” Riley said.

Riley plans to issue guidance later this week, likely Friday, that he said will cover “four big buckets” — best practices for online and offline remote learning; mental health supports for students whose daily lives have been upended by the pandemic; discussion of “essential standards” that students must learn to advance to the next grade; and possibilities of what a plan for reopening could look like.

He said planning for reopening is already underway, and those discussions involve looking to what’s been done in other countries, like spreading out desks and taking temperatures.

“There are many possibilities,” Riley said. “What we’re going to do is work with everyone, including and probably most especially the health care professionals to get the best advice possible for how we bring our kids back.”

The news contrasts sharply from the public conversation at the start of 2020, when districts and students were mostly talking about the first of seven years of major state investments in public schools in connection with a major education funding reform law adopted last year.

Riley said reopening the schools is “a process which we hope will happen in the coming months in collaboration with health experts and the school community.”

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy, who had called earlier Tuesday for the closure to be extended, said in a statement that before officials decide on any additional remote learning guidelines, there should be “a collective pause to assess how remote learning is working to date.”

“We must consider how families are managing the plans, which students are participating regularly, how to reach those who are not, and what additional strategies and resources must be employed to make remote learning more effective,” Najimy said in a statement.

Baker said his decision to keep schools closed was based on the fact that there is “no authoritative guidance or advisories with respect to how to operate schools safely and how to get kids to and from schools safely.”

Some of the issues that still need to be figured out, he said, include how to configure classrooms “under a very different set of assumptions” of how many kids can be in one room, what to do about school buses where kids “pile all over each other,” and how to handle vulnerable populations among both students and adults.

Baker said the education department would take additional steps to boost remote learning efforts, start preparing for summer learning for students at risk of falling behind, and launch a remote-learning initiative that will provide more tools and resources for teachers and students to use from home.

An advisory group the department plans to launch, with school officials, students, parents and business leaders, will also work on creating more resources for schools, he said.

A major challenge as students and teachers prepare to finish the year from home is varying levels of access to internet connectivity, technology and devices, and teacher tech support, Ed Lambert of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said. Officials have stressed that remote learning should not take place solely online, but the disparities remain an issue.

“I think the real expectation here is that things won’t be the same even in September, and if there continue to be rolling quarantine or isolation periods, remote learning is something that’s going to be with us for quite some time,” Lambert told the News Service. “First and foremost, we’ve got to bridge this digital equity divide.”

Lambert said some federal stimulus money could be used to buy devices and boost connectivity, and that those investments could be useful in the long-term once the crisis is over.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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