Public Policy Updates: April 2020 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held their April 2020 meeting remotely on April 28 at 9 am. The agenda can be found online here; the video can be found here

 There were a number of public speakers opening the meeting. A number of them advocated for a centralized system of curriculum preparation by the state, based on student readiness and competency, as tested remotely to create “actionable data” which then could be matched with skills and information each student is best prepared for, which would increase student engagement. A few speakers acknowledged the technology gap, but said, once conquered,”if students are not held in physical schools, there is no zip code barrier.” Some parents, it was argued, are now shopping around on districts, but not all parents have the ability to do that, so the state could “leverage this crisis” to provide for that. 

A grandparent of a Lowell High student spoke of her concern that this is “the new normal.” She does “not want children to learn this way…this is no way to teach children” and said “online thing is more like homework” and it’s not working. She advocated for doing whatever was necessary to bring students back into buildings in September. She said,”one of the things that makes me so proud to be from Massachusetts…we seem to be more on the ball with things” and “when you go to a graduation program at Middlesex Community College, there’s about forty flags; that says something about us.” 

A teacher who had been working with seniors on creating their portfolios to achieve the competency determination asked that it be waived entirely for them. Those students would have gotten their answers back in time to graduate with their classes, but now will have to wait for August. She said,”now is not the time to leave seniors and their families in confusion or making them wait.” 

Several Boston Public Schools parents also testified, advocating against state intervention. One said,”as a mother and a teacher, I am telling you we need more support…we do not need this top down intervention” and “truly this agreement is not necessary. Another said, “it is time to give more resources…but let the school communities make their own decisions.” 

Chair Katherine Craven acknowledged the challenge of the current circumstances, noting that she has five children home, learning through the Brookline Public Schools. She also said that Commissioner Riley’s evaluation subcommittee has continued to meet.

Secretary James Peyser explained that Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to close schools for the remainder of the year was made on health concerns but also out of concern for a loss of momentum in remote learning; he said it made sense not to have students shift gears again. 

The Commissioner said that he is thinking of this is four phases: phase one was responding to the immediate intial closure, getting school nutrition programs set up; working with WGBH to set up educational programming; ensuring workers and contractors were paid, both to avoid unemployment but also to ensure continuity of service. There then was an initial round of remote learning guidance, and now this new remote learning guidance, focusing on what is best for students with multiple points of access. The fourth phase will be planning for reopening. 
Senior Associate Commissioner Heather Peske spoke of the work specifically for English Learners. Across the state, 67% of English learner students are clustered in just 20 districts. The Department has focused there first, then is moving to support other districts. They have created a provisional identification of English learners, which does not replace face-to-face identification.  
Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston spoke of the work on special education; the Department is holding weekly calls with special education directors. They are working to get information out to families and to special education leaders; they are working to support students by disability type and age. A clear priority is those students who are turning 22 and needing transition out of the public education system. 
The Commissioner said the work is to “get settled into this routine on remote learning.” The Department has now issued this “set of essential standards…most critical for students to learn to go onto next grade level.” They know that some students are disengaged, some students are only somewhat engaged, and the work is to get supports to families.  
In the next few days, the state will be submitting an application for CARES Act funding, which they “are hopeful those dollars will be supplemental dollars…rather than used to supplant holes in people’s budgets.” There was further discussion of the CARES Act funding later in the meeting. 
The Commissioner said that planning for the fourth phase, reopening, has begun; the Department has created a working group that includes health experts and members of education communities. They are looking at other countries on how they’re re-opening schools to see “which, if any, safety measures will be up in place.” In other countries, that has included students waring face masks, moving desks apart in classrooms, running school on a staggered schedule, keeping students in class and moving teachers, and more. The Department also has worked to get P-EBT support going out to families in May; they’ve shared mental health supports for families. They have created a pilot translation services with five districts, and they hope to have that running in the next few weeks. They are working on regulatory relief on timelines. They are creating a parent-friendly letter on the updated guidance. They also recognize that there will be a need to talk about the competency determination for underclassmen. There is also a need to recognize the graduating class of 2020. If we are making lemonade out of the lemons we have, the Commissioner said, two years from now, “we want to say that ‘we made the best lemonade.'” 
In responding to questions from several members of the Board, members of the Department clarified that supports for families are first low-tech–using phones, for example–and then depend on technology, as there is notice of the large access issues in some districts. Member Matt Hills asked if there were examples of districts doing it particularly well; the Commissioner said that they are looking at it as continuous improvement Member Marty West asked about the role of diagonostic assessment; the Commissioner said that any re-entry would first be about getting students back into routines, and then would need to do re-assessment to match with what is known of students’ access to learning now in order to use the data effectively.

The Board then deliberated the competency deliberation proposal. This proposal specifically was about the seniors who have not yet passed the MCAS. Statewide, that is about 3500 students. Of those, about 2500 students either have not yet met local graduation requirements or are special education students who will be continuing until they have turned 22. That leaves about 1000 students statewide that are the ones that were discussed. The proposal is: 

• For ELA and mathematics, upon district certification that the student earned credit this year for a course aligned to the curriculum frameworks in the relevant subject matter, and has demonstrated competency in that subject. For students that were not enrolled in a course in the needed subject area during this school year, the Department will examine relevant coursework the district identifies for which the student received credit in previous school years.

• For science and technology/engineering –upon district certification that the student earned credit for a course aligned to the curriculum frameworks in the relevant subject matter, and has demonstrated competency in one of the four tested disciplines (biology, chemistry, introductory physics, technology/engineering) in either the current school year or a prior school year.

This emergency process will be implemented when information about students’ course completion is available. This will allow eligible students to be awarded the CD over the summer, on the same timeline that would have been in place had they been able to take part in the spring testing opportunities.

The seniors included, as described by Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin, would have had an opportunity to take the science MCAS in June, and some would have taken ELA and math with the sophomores. Those chances have been missed. This is proposing a way to give them that additional chance. To Member Hills question of how many of those students usually would pass, Curtin said it would be a relatively small percentage “but we don’t know who that percentage would be.” This was not, he emphasized, a proposal for students to take extra coursework; if coursework is still required, he responded in a question to Member James Morton, that is a local requirement, and thus a local decision. Hills asked if next year proceeded as a typical year, “you’re not looking at this as precedent?” Riley responded, “that would be a fair statement…we may need to look more other students impacted this year.” Member Michael Moriarty said he was completely supportive of this proposal, which he found thoughtful and balanced, but noted that some are looking “to take advantage of chaos of this moment” to end the competency determination; he said, “I want there to be no thought” of that, while supporting this “balanced response.” The measure passed unanimously.

The Board next received an update on the budget, “insight to the extent to the I have any,” CFO Bill Bell said. For FY20, all funding is being provided as budgeted, both state and federal as administered by the Department. They are not anticipating any loss of funds for FY20; the Commonwealth does not, at this time, anticipate that they will need to reduce spending this fiscal year. On the federal CARES Act, Bell said that funding will be able to be used through the end of September of 2022; the Governor’s fund is anticipated to be $50.8M, plus $214.9M for K-12 education stabilization. The state is in process of applying for that funding through a streamlined application. Once that application is finalized and submitted, approvals are quick; the state has been told it will have funding within three business days. The CARES Act allows for relatively broad use of the funding; anything in federal funding, plus supporting continuity of services. The Department will have to create an application for districts to apply and receive allocations. Distribution mirrors how Title I is distributed; U.S. Ed has said to use last year’s Title I allocations as the base. That totals about $193M of the $214M, so the Department is in process of determining allocations, as that’s 90% of funding. The remaining 10% is available to the state for determining needs that the formula might not address. The reality, Bell said, is that most of this funding is going to be used to support districts through the summer and the upcoming school year.