Public Policy Updates: December 2020 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met for their regular meeting on Tuesday, December 15, 2020 at 9 am. The agenda can be found online here; the livestream can be viewed here

The meeting opened with public comment from Superintendents Bob Baldwin of Fairhaven, Dianne Kelly of Revere, and Tim Piwowar of Billerica. Their testimony can be found here. They testified in opposition to the proposed emergency time on learning regulations. Baldwin said: 

We do not take issue with the concept of ‘what’ you are proposing. However, we have deep concerns on just ‘how’ these regulations are going to be implemented. We are concerned that a product of compliance will overshadow the intent of engagement with all our students. We are disappointed with the timing of having to meet these new standards in December that with almost half the school year completed.

Noting that Revere met the new minimum at the elementary level but not at the middle and high school levels, Kelly said:

We created this structure purposefully so that teachers could differentiate their instruction, so they could develop their newly neeed teaching skills, so individual student learning needs can be met, and so students were not lost in the shuffle of ineffective communication…If these regulations are being considered out of concern for the social and emotional wellness of our students and to foster student engagement, then Revere’s focus on small group instruction and our communication with families are both far more valuable ways to achieve these goals.

Piwowar called into question the argument that time equals quality, noted how far into the year the regulations are coming, and questioned the ability of districts to implement them, closing:

Instead of passing regulations that revive these arguments, at this point we should be spending our collective time, energy and capacity in deepening the quality and engagement of our current models in our districts, in focusing on ensuring that school systems receive the vaccine; in getting back in the spring to a semblance of normalcy; and in rebuilding the relationships and partnerships that have been strained during the pandemic.

There was additional public testimony questioning the focus on compliance rather than on the quality of instruction at this time.

The presidents of the teachers unions of Haverhill, Malden, and Worcester presented the vote of no confidence in Commissioner Jeffrey Riley by more than 100 locals. Anthony Parolisi, president of the Haverhill Education Association, testified as to the frustration of many with the Commissioner’s “continuously moving the goalposts as the pandemic worsens” by “simply redefining what it means to be high risk.” He said teachers “are trying with our superintendents and our school committees to hold this fragile” system of remote learning together. Noting that the vaccine does not eliminate the need for survaillance testing, Deb Gesualdo, president of the Malden Education Association, called for repurposing the funding for MCAS for such testing. Roger Nugent, president of the Educational Association of Worcester. spoke of the age and inadequate ventilation of his district’s buildings, which he said the district was purchasing technology to improve. Rather than supporting this, Nugent said, the Commissioner instead was pressuring Worcester and other districts to return to buildings.

Finally, there was public testimony from from a panel of regional vocational superintendents: Jon Evans of South Middlesex Regional Vocational (Keefe Tech),  Elvio Ferreira of Greater Fall River Regional Vocational (Diman Regional), and Luis Lopez of Southeastern Regional Vocational. They spoke of the work going on in their districts now around the expansion of after dark programs, of the work that has been going on around diversification of the student body, and concerns that current efforts will be stymied rather than supported should the Board change the regulation around student admission to their districts.

At the invitation of Chair Katherine Craven, Member Amanda Fernández briefly updated the Board on the efforts on educator diversification, which she chairs the Board’s subcommittee on; she said it was impressive to see all the progress that has been made through the teacher diversification grant, Influence 100, INSPIREd fellows, and DESE racial equity training. She said the committee will meet again in February.

Commissioner Riley then quickly briefed the Board on recent Departmental work on the pandemic: webinars on air quality, contracts for over 12,000 air purifiers, MEMA distribution of 1 1/2 million adult and student masks out to districts, P-EBT benefits extended through Sept 2021 (no update as yet on distribution), the postponement of the January MCAS for juniors, the extended ACCESS testing window, and the modified competency determination in science for the classes of ’21, ’22, and ’23. He also said that the vaccine would be prioritized by the Commonwealth for educators, and that it was expected to be out to them in February and March.

Speaking of his concern of the mental health of children, the Commissioner introduced a panel of pediatrician Dr. Lloyd Fisher, child psychiatrist Dr. Mathieu Bermingham, and Attorney Diana Santiago of Mass Advocates for Children. They spoke of students’ anxiety, depression, and isolation during the pandemic.
Member Michael Moriarty agreed, speaking of his own experiences with children needing mental health services in the 1990’s and wondering if the state has even as much support as then. he said, “we cannot just sit with the status quo which is what I think many of those speakers asked us to do,” referring to public testimony. 
Vice Chair James Morton asked, repeatedly, for explanation as to why the emergency regulations being proposed by the Department were the solution to the mental health issues being raised by the Commissioner and the panel. He said he was struck not only by concern over that issue, but also “struck by the raging coronavirus in our communities of color in particular.” “Is this the time, is this the moment,” he asked, for this emergency regulation? The panelists spoke of the importance of daily and regular check-ins. Morton also questioned if a forced relationship was really beneficial, to which Bermingham spoke of the importance of caring for educators; he said, “it’s about developing a relationship of trust.”
Secretary James Peyser, again noting that he believes more students should be learning in school buildings, said that regular contact with teachers and peers could mitigate mental health issues among students. He said this would establish “a common but flexible baseline” across the state. He also noted that further guidance on early elementary would be forthcoming from the Executive Office. 
Member Darlene Lombos noted the dichotomy in testimony between the panel of superintendents at the beginning of the meeting and the mental health experts at this point. “I think we can agree there’s a huge problem,” she said. People are starving, they’re unemployed. She said she was not sure that the regulations got at the problem that they were trying to solve. She said, “what I would have liked for you is to dialogue…and actually talk about this policy.”
Student member Jared Coughlin said he was not sure how more hours of live instruction would lead to deeper connections, speaking of the separations of six feet apart or being on a Zoom call. In reference to an earlier call to expand the safety net, Coughlin said, rather than expanding the safety net “what would be better than to catch students when they’re falling is to prevent them from falling.”
Member Mary Ann Stewart said the mental space coping with the pandemic and its outfalls is enormous, and it has shone a big light on the holes everywhere. She said “we were taking for granted a lot of what educators do for kids,” and those who had appeared earlier were asking to have that seen and heard. She said further that it was not clear to her that these regulations came from a lot of conversations with districts.
Vice Chair Morton again asked why now, why when the coronavirus is raging? He asked, “why not have the dialogue with all the stakeholders…you talked about trust…and caring…if the best possible situation, folks are in it because they want to win it.” He said, the question for me is not so much the content of the regulation as it is the process: “it’s going to feel heavyhanded.” He added, “the emergency is not the regulation; it’s the raging coronavirus” He asked, why not have the input from the stakeholders “and the refinement that comes from that” before passing the regulation? The Commissioner responded that he thinks it is an emergency.
Member Paymon Rouhanifard said that he didn’t think this went far enough in promoting in-person instruction. He said he in part joined the Board due to Riley’s reputation for listening and responding, and he thought the Commissioner was underselling how much of that Riley had been doing. Riley cited his 25 years in education and said the regulations were because he was concerned about students’ physical well being.
Member Matt Hills said he’d be open to further adjustments as needed with an eye to where in the school year we are. He also said that waivers offered would undercut the broad health concerned. He also said that references to a memoradum of agreement was no place to open a discussion. He requested an update later in the year.
Member Marty West said he was reminded “of our obligation under the state constitution” to ensure all children have high quality and adequate education, that the Board delegates particular aspects to local districts, “but ultimately we’re on the line,” and he said the regulation is a way to “ensure that we’re doing that.” He said he did not love the regulation, “but we’re in a world of second best here.”
Member Amanda Fernández said she had similar concerns to Lombos: she heard commentary from superintendents, then from doctors and legal, and “it did create dissonance to me.” She said the regulation itself does not address this massive mental health issue that was described by the physicians and “I fear that there is some conflation going on of the issue.” She was not opposed to better quality engagement “but I don’t know that this regulation is going to solve what are these massive” issues. “{T]his is addressing something very short term and the bigger issues are ahead of us and our time is better spent as a state, as a board, as an institution to focus on these issues that are coming before us.” She questioned if regulation was necessary when other kinds of interventions might be possible.
The Commissioner then called up Assistant Commissioner Russell Johnston and Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin to address the  proposed regulations. To the earlier referenced relationship, routines, recreation, Johnston added “regulation,” as the part that is the Board’s responsibility. He reviewed with the Board a number of the documents and resources that the Department has offered to districts, saying “they’re the voice of the state, they’re the voice of parents, they’re the voice of educators.” He said it was an opportunity to use professional resources well. He said, “in our minds” it’s not more screen time, but it “can be opportunities” for teachers to direct play in students’ homes, or students to engage with each other.
Curtin then reviewed the data the Department had collected back in early November in response to questions the Department was getting on what was happening in schools. They collected a two week snapshot of grades 1, 4, 7, and 10. He said that they saw some things in the data that were concerning, most notably fully asynchronous days in both hybrid and fully remote models. “Frankly that was a bit of a surprise, and concerning.” The Department began to think about a standard.
Last week, the Department issued preliminary clearance, a school learning time report based on data the districts had given. Districts are currently reviewing the report, which is open for editing. He noted the regulations do not require any district to send any additional students back into buildings. Some districts will need to add both hours and days.

hybrid graph


remote graph

The Department is offering waivers to the requirements on a fairly limited basis “if a district can show us that we’re close and we have a high degree of parent satisfaction”” or they’re running alternative models, for example, for students who are working during the day.
Morton asked with whom the regulations had been discussed; Curtin said the superintendents’ association, to which the Commissioner added that he had spoken to the school committees association, and “had some conversation” with the teachers’ unions. West asked if those districts that would be in non-compliance would be any particular type of district; Curtin said no, that there was variation across. 
Lombos asked why do the Board had to change a regulation: “Couldn’t we just give the supports to the one-third districts?” expressing particular concern that there had been no discussion with teachers, students Johnston responded that those in the Department “don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask for this to happen…we do think supports will have greater impact.” Peyser responded that while historically, districts have asked for greater flexibility, now superintendents have been calling for greater clarity, to which Lombos responded that the superintendents “were clear; they needed it much earlier.”
Morton asked why some districts had chosen asychronous learning. Curin responded, “I want to be clear: I haven’t asked why,” then added that there had been scheduled deep cleaning days for hybrid models,and that there was additional professional development for teachers learning to do a remote model. 
On a 7-4 vote, with Morton, Lombos, Fernández, and Coughlin opposed, the emergency regulations were adopted.

The Board then heard a preliminary report on vocational education. After an introduction by Senior Associate Commissioner Cliff Chuang, new Associate Commissioner Elizabeth Bennett reviewed the earlier changes to regulation. Over the next several months, the Department will review wait list information to then present to the Board in early 2021. The Department will then bring proposed draft regulation back to the Board in the spring of 2021, to go out to public comment, to be back for adoption in early summer. The Department is continuing to engage with a variety of stakeholders. There are several tools coming online: an interactive data tool, research on the value of vocational education, and forthcoming data on applicants and admitted students. CVTE partnerships continue to grow. Specific reopening guidelines were developed during the pandemic, as was emergency admission guidance. Craven asked about access to eighth graders. Chuang said that prior regulation amendment required provision of addresses; there is proposed regulation on collaboration. He noted that this had to be tackled in parallel with admissions, as some of the concern was around how students are admitted.

The Board then moved on to send out for public comment proposed updated framework for world languages. Senior Associate Commissioner Heather Peske noted that they were last revised in 1999. There have already been four phases of revisions. This is organized in ways that are more reflective of learning and not attached to ages, given the ways in which students learn languages. They are also explicitly linked to social emotional learning, aligned across disciplines, and refer to world languages rather than to foreign languages. The proposed framework was, by Board vote, sent out for public comment

Finally, the Board heard an update from CFO Bill Bell on budgetary matters. The Governor signed the FY21 budget last week, six months into the fiscal year. The one difference with the conference committee was a  gubernatorial veto of the $53M allocation for COVID aid for districts. The Governor has instead proposed $53M in the supplemental budget filed Friday, which would be allocated not be formula with a progressive funding amount by poverty, but allocated by the Department and the Executive Office. Secretary Peyser caled it “a more targeted and strategic approach” to learning loss in particular “as well as other challenges.” Bell said that Congress has until Friday to act on federal spending, and noted the various bills proposed have varying levels of support for states and for local districts.The Department has also begun working on the FY22 budget.

The Board adjourned. They will next meet on Tuesday, January 26, 2021.