Public Policy Updates: September 2020 Board of Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met for their regular September meeting back in person in Malden. The agenda for the meeting can be found online here. The video can be found here

The meeting opened with public comment from parents from Newton and Andover, expressing their dissatisfaction with the ways in which their school districts have opened. Both districts have some form of hybrid learning. Parents said that it was “unacceptable” and they felt “abandoned” by their districts. One called for changes in the state guidance around how classrooms and busing are to be carried out, as well as a waiver from the requirement that districts bus young elementary students. 
They were followed by Professor Pat McQuillan of the Lynch School at Boston College, who, speaking on behalf of his colleagues who are also history and social studies education professors, proposed that the MCAS this year should be replaced by the civics project now required by the state. Saying this proposal “has real world relevance and is an opportunity to empower learners,” hesaid “I think you’ve got this thing knocked if you take a look at yourself.” 

Chair Katherine Craven welcomed everyone to the new year, saying that as a Brookline parent of four children in schools, with a preschooler going full time, a student with special education needs going four days a week (with the fifth day, she said, “a disaster”), and two older students attending school remotely. She said “each community in its own data and it’s also unique in its ability to bargain with its teachers.” She added, one thing that the Board agrees on “is that the achievement gap is not going to be improved by this crisis…I think that the work of this year.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Riley noted several grant opportunities–for STEM and for early literacy–as well as spoke of the waiver the state has applied for on 21st century learning grants for other uses. He said that the federal government has lost in court over the equitable services interpretation of the ESSER funding regarding funding going to private schools and does not intend to appeal; there will be guidance coming forward.
The Commissioner also said that the United States Department of Education has made it clear that there will not be waivers on required testing this year. Riley anticipates that the usual fall MCAS makeup will be pushed back to January. Member Matt Hills said it is not difficult to predict a torrent of advocacy for cancellation in the spring; he said, “last spring was different; we had a pandemic out of the blue” and “I think it would be horrible, terrible policy if were not going to have MCAS whatever the situation is.” He said,”One way or another, I’d like to think that DESE will develop contingency plans” to hold the MCAS whatever the situation, and he asked that the Board be kept appraised of all planning. 

Secretary Jim Peyser praised the Commissioner and the Department for ‘continuing to drive” forward on needed work, and he thanked educators for their work while also balancing the challenges all are as a result of the pandemic. He said, “I also want to thank those superintendents and school committees who have responded to the data in their local communities to work as hard as they can to maximize in-person learning” before thanking the Governor at length while outlining the work of the Executive branch. 
Peyser also congratulated Member Michael Moriarty on his appointment to a second term by Governor Baker.

The Board then re-elected Member James Morton to another term as Vice Chair.

The Commissioner then spoke about the back to school, a review, he said, of “where we’ve been and where we’re going.” He said the decisions made at the Department were grounded in collaboration, as “this is an issue that transcends education.” The Deparment has put out over 200 pages of guidance across district issues. Districts were required to prepare three back to school plans, with the goal to get as many students back to in-person learning as possible. He said that in the past the Department has focused on attendance,”but this is a year where we really want to focus on staying home if you’re sick if you can.” He said the need for three plans was driven both by the Department not knowing what revenue for districts would be, as well as not knowing what path the virus would take. He said that thanks to level funding “we knew the cuts weren’t necessarily going to have to be made” and that the further grant funding “have really allowed schools to do any of the three models.” Citing the Johns Hopkins measurements, he said this argued for the state to bring students back into buildings; the state then built the stoplight model, where for red plans, districts “can think about going remote” but the Department would still emphasize in-person learning for high needs students; yellow, where the state would advice going hybrid; and green or grey, where “we really think you should be going back full time in person.” Districts, he said, should be using multiple weeks of the stoplight metric in decisions making. He said, “we feel like we have a moral obligation as a Department to have people aligning to the metric as much as possible.” 
Riley reviewed the work the Department had done to work with districts that had outstanding orders on Chromebooks–most have now come in, with the rest expected this week. For districts that were seeking a formative assessment, the Department has offered contracts with two suppliers: Riverside Insights: Iowa Flex (math 2-8; ELA 4-8) and Istation: Indicators of Progress (ISIP) (math PreK-8; reading PreK-8; Spanish literacy PreK-5). The state has also arranged for a mobile testing unit “stand ready to use” should it be necessary. 
Moriarty asked if there were some way for the state to receive the results of formative assessment; Riley responded that the MCAS has been the state’s data source, but that there has been some discussion of “dipsticking” district data, which they’ll discuss further. 
Member Matt Hills said, regarding letters recently sent to grey or green districts learning remotely, threatening audits, “Don’t overlook the value of sending out those letters…we have limited ability to directly control” districts “and that’s the way the system’s set up and that’s fine. On the other hand, there’s an accountability that you can force a conversation around by sending out letters like that.” He said, “I would say don’t be shy and meek in thinking about the districts in which that conversation should be forced. That’s also leadership, even if it’s not direct control.” Riley responded that the Department had waited for the metric to be out for more than six weeks before contacting districts in this way. He said, “”we just want people to be aligned with the data and the science and what the medical community is telling us so we can maximize the amount of student learning and we fundamentally believe that in-person instruction is better than remote instruction.” He added, “I don’t think we can say with a straight face is that anything can replace in-person instruction.” 
Riley then noted the critical nature of family engagement, that the Department in speaking to families “did find they preferred in-person instruction,” and “did want the communication to be robust.”
Member Paymon Rouhanifard praised the Commissioner for the report, saying it “reflects how you are leading so dispassionately and following the facts and the guidance.” He repeated Moriarty’s request for student data, suggesting the Department could perhaps receive data from Boston. He asked if the Department had any information regarding drops in enrollment and if so, what might the monetary impact to districts be. Riley noted the upcoming October 1 count and said the Board could receive a report in November on enrollment. Peyser briefly explained hold harmless aid. 
Member Darlene Lombos said she appreciated the Department’s emphasis on diversity, inclusion, equity, and the call for districts to really think about who they’re talking to. She said she’d love to be a part of what the behind the scenes conversations look like, and she expressed concern over the inequities being exacerbated by the pandemic and who was able to open and not open.  
Member Amanda Fernández echoed the concern on inequities, pointing specifically to technology access as one of concern, noting that it goes beyond devices to dependable broadband and understanding and skills with technology. Riley said, “we’re in a decent spot in technology,” adding “there is some internet connectivity issues we still need to work through.”  
Moriarty, speaking of remote learning, noted the lack of engagement “that I think is rife particularly in urban districts.” Regarding family engagement, he saw a concern particularly in large districts with small numbers of administrators,”I think it goes to I don’t think many of our public school districts are particularly good at engagement or are particularly strong in engagement. He spoke of the distinction between chronic absenteeism and truancy, andof wanting good policy to be made. In response to a question from Vice Chair Morton, Riley said the Department would be working with districts to get students back on track, which is “certainly something we’re hyperfocused on.” 

Quincy Public Schools were invited to speak of the work they did this summer with students, both in having 136 students in person with 50 staff and over 100 additional staff working with additional students remotely. Assistant Superintendent Erin Perkins spoke at length about the planning that gone into that: they met at the high school with very small cohorts spread across the building with individual restrooms. Staff were all masked and students were masked as possible. Students were transported on large buses at six feet apart with paraprofessionals riding with students. The district was able to contain the coronavirus cases to two. When the cases came back, district administration called all staff and families in the summer program and the cohort impacted quarantined and they had “no spread from those cases.”

The Board then moved forward with making permanent the emergency changes made to the time on learning regulaton. Deputy General Counsel Deb Steenland walked through the changes that had been made in response to public comment. The Department updated the definition of asynchronous learning to include “opportunities to regularly interact with teachers.” While regularly communicating with families was in the regulations, “students” was not, so that was made explicit. The Department did not adopt changes proposed to remote learning, including specifying English learners and special education students, as they are included in “all students” in the language; they also did not change “habitually truant” as that is in the law in a section not administered by the Department.  Assistant Commissioner Russell Johnston spoke of the work the Department has done in concert with the Department of Children and Families; the Department offered workshops this summer to districts and DCF on attendance. The emphasis is on making sure districts know families before there are truancy issues. The Department wants absence to count, for there to be attention to it, but it is much more nuanced; “that student that’s absent a lot, doesn’t mean that you need to necessarily file with the Department of Children and Families” 
Hills asked why the Board should give up its authority to approve any modification in time and days. He understood that the emergency regulation would simply expire if not approved today, but asked that it come back before the Board for further discussion. He also wished for further specificity in what is required;”of course that’s up to local districts, of course we don’t have the ability to ram anything through” but watching what is happening across the state, while DESE doesn’t have the ability to mandate anything “what districts should be considering” is an appropriate use of the Department’s platform. 
Member Mary Ann Stewart Stewart agreed that it is incumbent on districts to do outreach on family engagement. She also wanted to acknowledge the challenge that school committees have risen to in engaging with families and making plans; she said it is a “tremendously challenging time,” and she wanted to thank all of those people on committees for their work and time.  
Morton agreed that the Board should approve with a 60 or 90 day review, as did Moriarty, saying there are many decisions at the local level he wouldn’t support right now, but they “don’t want fast track students into criminal court” or families into 51A. 
The change in regulations was passed, as was the proposed regulation regarding collaboratives (with no discussion).

Finally, Department CFO Bill Bell gave a brief update on the financial situation, reminding us that the state has a budget of $16B through the end of October. There is now expectation that both chambers will pass a budget for the remainder of the year starting with the revenue hearing next Wednesday, October 7, to be completed by October 31. Most districts, he said, are using emergency relief funds to cover extraordinary expenses. As MASBO members were told earlier this week, the Department has reviewed about 75% of the applications for the Coronavirus Relief Funds (CvRF) grants; of the 341 applications received so far, 162 payments have been issued. Bell said districts have “a decent idea” of their revenue this year, that FY22 will be the question, though it is a good sign that the state was able to close FY20 without dipping into the rainy day fund.

The meeting adjourned. The Board next meets Tuesday, October 20.