Public Policy Updates: January 2022 Board of Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on Tuesday, January 25, 2022 at 9 am. The agenda of the meeting can be found online here; the livestream of this meeting is available here.

The Board opened with public comment.

A group of parents organized as “Families 4 COVID Safety” from Boston opened the public testimony. Emphasizing that the Department has been making decisions without student and family input has put families into turmoil and has not addressed the need for racial equity, they advocated for a twice a week, consistent testing program that is opt-out rather than opt-in; high quality masks for all students; ventilation and filtration in all eating spaces within schools; support for district investigation of outbreaks; coordinating with communities on vaccination; and allowing for remote learning as needed that counts towards state-mandated time. Sarah Horsley said in any mitigation strategy or COVID protocol there must be racial equity. Delivered parent testimony noted that efforts must be concerned with individual impacts, not shifting goal posts. Testimony presented from Mass Advocates for Children noted that COVID has revealed how pervasive inequity is, and said “decision makers cannot continue to minimize the concerns of students and their families.” Further testimony noted that meetings at which testimony can only be offered in person and in English further limited the access of families. The gap between the experiences of families and the response of the Board members “literally sickened me” said one FamCOSA member; “It was sadly clear that the conditions and desires” of parents expressed “were certainly different than is typical in this space.”

A parent from New Bedford expressed opposition to the proposed Innovators Charter School, drawing from New Bedford and Fall River. After thanking the Board members for attending public testimony last month in New Bedford, he noted that most of the testimony was in opposition to the proposed school, and those in support did not live in New Bedford. He offered as a closing remark: “this fixation on learning loss needs to cease. I ask the Board to hold all school districts…schools…students on MCAS scores.” A second commenter from New Bedford marked BayCoast Bank pulling their support for the proposal. The proposal, he said, was always in question; with three board members withdrawning, “the school’s governance structure…is in complete shambles.”

The Vocational Educational Justice Coalition then offered testimony regarding the changes to admissions policies. Looking at patterns of what the outcome has been:
1. Overall, while doing better, not enough attention is paid to recruiting EL and students of color
2. Voke schools offer seats to less privileged students at substantially lower rates across comparisons groups
3. When offered seats, less privileged students are more likely to accept seats than more privileged peers
In sum, demand for seats outstrips vocational schools’ admissions.

Testimony from Chelsea followed, of a student who applied and didn’t get in, now knowing she could have learned something different and won’t, and of a guidance counselor seeing students so discouraged from past years that they won’t even apply. The question posted was if the Department will enforce the federal civil rights standard or not?

Chair Katherine Craven thanked the Board for “standing strong and doing their due diligence” this year, noting that every speaker this morning would have someone diametrically opposed by someone else. Calling into question the assertion that voices aren’t heard, she spoke of the hours of testimony heard in New Bedford regarding the proposed charter school. She said that kindness has been lacking in public discourse across the Commonwealth, saying that a discussion with superintendents the need for “kindness, patience, and partnership” was needed across the Commonwealth came up. She also thanked Governor Baker, who has appointed or reappointed all members of the current Board. She also remembered Paul Andrews of MASS.

Student member Eleni Carris Livingston wished districts to be aware of the existence of the Presidential Scholars program for future years.

Secretary James Peyser said he would usually provide an update on the Governor’s budget at this meeting, but it is not being released until tomorrow.

Commissioner Jeffrey Riley then gave an update on COVID, opening by saying that it appears the state has gotten past the peak of omicron, but “still we must remain vigilant.” He noted the distribution of tests to district staff over winter break, the extension of the district mask mandate, and the shift to a different COVID testing program. In his discussion of the shift of testing program, Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston stressed that they “have responded to what we’ve learned by listening to parents and students and staff” in making changes, that, while districts were not asked directly about the testing changes ahead of time, that they were “overwhelmingly” asked to reduce the burden on districts. When asked about disparities among districts in what testing path to follow, Johnston said there was not a difference.

Member Mary Ann Stewart asked what best practices from last year’s remote learning the state had collected; the Commissioner responded that they would get back to the Board on that.

Member Lombos asked for a response to the public comment; Johnston said that students testing postive was “primarily due to” community transmission outside of schools.

Carris Livingston asked about the supply of tests; Johnston said a supply was in their warehouses and the supply lines were checked for redundancies. He also responded that test expiration dates had been checked.

Moriarity said that the Board “should recognize and honor the heroic efforts that have been made” to keep schools open by staff in districts at this time.

Lombos asked about courts getting involved in truancy, as noted in public testimony. Johnston said it “really is about local schools and districts,” that the state has put out guidane and held webinars. Moriarity added the local policies come from school committees who perhaps haven’t had time to catch up on policy changes. Clark added, “we’re only as good as those implementing locally” the state law from the Legislature.

Carris Livingston asked about student access to classes while having to quarantine. Riley said that individual districts have contracts with teachers’ unions, some of which don’t provide for that. Clark asked if the Department had any authority in this matter, to which Riley responded that it is a local authority. West noted that the Board and Department “can call out what we find objectionable, as you just did.” Peyser said that his understanding was that this was more of an issue around hybrid. Lombos sid that she wants to check that there is actually a collective bargaining issue, and intends to do so. Carris Livingston said that she had heard that hybrid was very difficult.

The Commissioner told the Board that he would be bringing forward an update on the Boston MOU at a future meeting, and that all vocational schools have brought forward updated policies. The Department is reviewing the outcome of admissions and will be taking action if needed.

The Board then quickly approved the phase out of the chemistry and technology/engineering MCAS, after Rouhanifard called it a “vote of acquiescence,” saying it was a “sad day, devaluing science.” Peyser said the Board didn’t want to send the signal that sciences don’t matter. Both the physics and biology science tests remain as options for the 10th grade assessment. Riley said that he would be updating the Board on planned changes to the lower grade science assessments.

The Board also quickly approved without discussion the proposed amendments to Abby Kelley Foster Public Charter School and to Community Day Charter Public School-Prospect, Community Day Charter Public School-Gateway, and Community Day Charter Public School-R. Kingman Webster.

The Board then received an fiscal update. Noting that the Governor’s budget isn’t released until Wednesday and thus wasn’t included, CFO Bill Bell spoke of the large amount being managed by the Department at this time. They are working throught the FY22 budget. They are close to finalizing a recommendation on a methodology for the enrollment reserve passed as part of last year’s budget. He noted the recent $55M Legislative bill passed, which includes HVAC, compensatory services, educator diversity initiative, and 53 separate Legislative earmarks. He spoke also of the three rounds of federal funding being managed by the Department; at this time, about 75% of applications are approved for ESSER III. Of those not yet approved, a lot are construction related, as they have to ensure that the districts adhere to state and federal procurement. Of the $1.66B of ESSER III, the Department has approved about 3/4 of a billion of those funds so far. The Legislature has also passed a further bill that includes provision for masking and testing in schools which has not yet been signed by the Governor. He did note that much of the spending outside of the Ch. 70 funding recently is multi-year in nature, taking planning processes: “even modest HVAC construction isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Hills noted for his colleagues that school committee members are very focused on the fiscal cliff, and that impacts local decision making to a degree “maybe not clear at this level.” Bell agreed that local districts are still running their local appropriations. He also noted that districts did have an opportunity to “thoughtfully link up” funding with the coming SOA appropriations, which was echoed by Peyser.

The Board then adjourned.

Note that shared was also the Board’s annual report.