Public Policy Updates: May 2021 Board of Ed meeting

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on May 25, 2021 at 9 am. The agenda for this meeting can be found online here. Video coverage of the meeting can be found here

Traditionally, the May meeting of the Board is hosted by the district of the ongoing student representative; this was not done at this meeting due to the pandemic. Board Chair Katherine Craven said she hoped that the Board might still be able to meet in Billerica, hometown of student member Jared Coughlin, before the Board’s summer recess.


Public comment opened with parents speaking against the Department’s guidance on a number of safety protocols for districts and how those are being implemented locally. One parent, in demanding that the requirement that students wear masks in buildings be rescinded, said her child’s mask was “essentially a scarlet letter on her face” and said the Department and districts “have used and abused [children] too long.” A group of parents protested outside the building during the meeting, with some demanding that they be allowed to enter the building as a group, in contravention of current safety protocols. Saying that students were lacking access to the full educational experience, parents listed concerns from students not being allowed to drink water at their desks to not sitting with friends at lunch to libraries in schools being closed. The group put forward three areas they believed were in need of “urgent attention”: a shift in the framing of relative risk; limiting of local control in areas of public health; and an end of all fall 2020 guidance as of June 3.

A group from Mass Parents United spoke next, listing ten areas they felt were necessarily as districts allocate federal funding, based on a survey they conducted. Ranging from individualized education plans for all students to free access to technology to healthy buildings for all students to human centered, culturally competent teaching, those testifying also placed importance on communication with families. Saying students deserve teachers “who look like them” and need counselors for trauma, one parent said “our teachers are awesome and they’re underpaid.” Calling this a “once in a lifetime” fundings stream, the group said they’d be watching allocations closely.

Several superintendents of vocational technical schools closed the public comment period, speaking of the expected regulations coming next month. The superintendent of Northeast Metro Tech noted the need for equity down into elementary and middle schools, and spoke of his care and concern for the students of the sending districts from which his school pulls. There was comment of the lack of access of eighth graders to information about the vocational schools to which they might apply. The MAVA Board put forward several requests for revisions, mostly regarding timelines of implementation of reporting requirements, while also noting that equity is not only a matter of admission to schools, but of curriculum and school culture. 

Vice Chair James Morton briefly updated the Board on the evaluation of the Commissioner; he chairs the subcommittee which conducts that annually. They have interviewed over 40 stakeholders and plan to present the evaluation to the full Board in June.

Member Amanda Fernández then spoke at some length in response to the comments and the public backlash to comments made by member Michael Moriarty at last month’s meeting. She said while she could debate the intent, it was more important to do systems level work on equity. She said the pandemic has laid bare disparities in education system but also the “vitriol and hate spewed” at communities of color. She noted the “fever pitch” of disagreements around schooling in pandemic. She sadi to her colleagues on the Board, “given the privilege of the position we are in,” members have a responsibility in modeling language. She said the “work must continue; we must go further” as the work “just never ends.” Her comments were taken up and echoed by Members Darlene Lombos, who asked that the Board have a protocol for responding to public calls, and Vice Chair Morton. Moriarty did not address this. Morton said, “let us never forget the challenges of those who face racism at every turn.”

Craven called for a moment of silence to recognize the anniversary of the death of George Floyd.

Commissioner Jeff Riley spoke a bit of the reopening of school buildings. He noted that USDA will be continuing free meals for all students through the end of next school year. He then introduced Komal Bhasin and Jackie Gantzer who spoke on what the Department is calling the Academic Excellence Roadmap for next year. The focus, they said, will be on “acceleration,” rather than remediation, to “scaffold” student learning to the next year’s learning rather than go back to the prior year. They cited a “strong need for tangible actions and specific relevant resources” with a prioritization of grade level standards, clear and consistent communication, and a student-requested focus on social emotional support. In order, the map calls for 
1. developing a sense of belonging
2. monitoring student understanding
3. access to grade level instruction
The Department is offering professional development for both teachers and administrators on the system. The focus is on unfinished instruction and supporting students with diverse needs. The Board members expressed interest in seeing examples of the work, both now and in the future, and on comparisons among and between districts that engage. Secretary James Peyser said he thought there was a need for a framework on resource allocation given the incoming federal dollars.
The federal funding was the next piece of the presentation. Matt Denniger spoke of the sequences of the rounds of federal funding, noting that ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) III funding, signed into law in January, can be spent until 2024. The Department must, as part of its planning for those funds, conduct stakeholder input, which they are now doing, including through a public survey. The state’s application for funds is due June 7; they must set aside funds for summer enrichment, as well as for after school, address lost instructional time, and also have to maintain effort. Districts, similarly, will, in order to receive their final third of ESSER III funds, must apply for it in the fall, and must consult with stakeholders, set aside 20% to address instructional time, submit district reopening plans (updated), and maintain effort to highest poverty schools. Member Matt Hills asked if there was any attempt to ensure these funds are used for new initiatives; there is not language barring supplanting local funding in this grant, but such language remains in other federal grants, and thus districts could run afoul of that. Secretary James Peyser said, “I can’t think of why local municipalities would want to use these funds as they’re getting significant revenues themselves.”

The Board then passed without discussion the amended time on learning regulations as proposed and passed as emergency regulations back in March. There were no changes proposed from the public comment on the regulatory language. 

Student member Jared Coughlin then presented on the work of the Student Advisory Council this year. Noting the challenges of the pandemic led to lessened participation, one of the change made this year was to streamline communication among members, enacting policies that he felt would serve them well going forward. The SAC conducted a student survey which reached over 5000 students back in November, in which students noted their high levels of anxiety and frustration. Members increased the number of meetings, conducted extensive research into subjects of interest to students, and increased their consultation with the Department. Coughlin several times noted the high level of dedication among members, which he said exemplifed the similar work ethic of students during this pandemic year. Coughlin, who plans to attend George Washington University in the fall, was congratulated and thanked for his work. 

The Board then heard a presentation on early college, innovation pathways, and the Mass Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative (MAICEI). Early college programs are designed to increase equitable access by eliminating barriers to student participation; there are currently 26 early college programs with 28 high schools and 20 college/universities participating, with several more under review. The majority of those participating in such programs identify as Latinx or Black; a majority of students participating are low income. There is a 20% different in college matriculation within six months of graduation of those in such programs.
Innovation pathways programs is a partnership with MassHires and employers that concentrates on broadly defined skills in high demand industries; currently those are manufacturing, healthcare, information, environment, business and finance. There are currently 121 programs in 49 high schools in 43 districts. MAICEI recognizes that districts are responsible for educating those students with recognized needs until they are 22. The program provides students with intellectual disabilities and autism inclusive opportunities to participate in college. Praising the program, Craven said the Board is “inheritors” of this work. Member Paymon Rouhanifard spoke of the distinction between credentials and college credits, of the “wall’ between them. he said, “I have become somewhat obsessed with job-first” higher education, in which the student is pursuing employment credentials first. Fernández agreed, asking of the responsibility of employers, of credentialing to get into a position, then get a college degree if the student so wishes. Peyser credited Governor Baker and his administration for support for this work.

Commissioner Riley deferred the Kaleidoscope project to the next meeting, and commented that the budget update wasn’t needed as there had already been a discussion of the ESSER funding. 
The Board will next meet on Tuesday, June 22.