Massachusetts education board votes to modify the definition of remote learning in regulations

The state education board on Tuesday voted to approve amendments to regulations around how students go to school safely during a declared state of emergency, as officials said they plan to monitor the quality of remote learning in the coming months.

Massachusetts has been in a declared state of emergency for six months amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. After schools abruptly went online in the spring as virus cases spread, districts across the state now have a mix of in-person and online learning models.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously to approve amendments to regulations for student learning during an emergency, which call for districts to define remote learning and have plans that include a system for tracking attendance and participation, a policy for grading students’ remote academic work and a requirement that teachers and administrators regularly communicate with students’ parents and guardians, including providing interpretation and translation services, among other measures.

Amendments to the guidelines based on public comment include:

  • Adding a definition of “synchronous” and “asynchronous” learning to provide clarity on the scope of the concepts
  • Modifying the definition of remote learning to include that students have opportunities to regularly interact with teachers to address the concern that remote learning could consist of asynchronous learning only
  • Including “students” to the requirement that teachers and administrators regularly communicate with parents and guardians

Education officials continue to work with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to make sure both departments are aligned on what is considered habitual truancy. With many students learning online full- or part-time this year, some have limited broadband internet access that could impact attendance online.

Officials said they are continuing to monitor remote learning to ensure students’ needs are being met.

BESE Chair Katherine Craven said the board will take up the guidelines and amendments again in November after more data and information about how the current school year is going is available.

In the two weeks that students have been back in schools, there have been no major outbreaks of coronavirus, Riley said. Some districts have reported handfuls of cases. The Hopkinton Public Schools have temporarily moved to remote learning this week after two students tested positive for the virus.

Riley noted that there is a mobile testing unit that can go to a district if there is a concern about wide spread of the virus.

“When we start to think that it might be community spread in a school, we have a mobile testing unit through HHS and DPH which is set up to come out to a school and react quickly. They’ll be testing people that are more than close contacts, people that are asymptomatic, to try to gauge whether or not there has been spread at a particular school,” Riley said. “While we haven’t activated that yet, that stands at the ready to use in case we see clusters of cases start popping up throughout the year.”

This month, Riley and Gov. Charlie Baker have urged communities that have low coronavirus transmission rates – following a state metric that rates towns and cities as red, yellow, green or gray/white – to return to in-person learning. A handful of districts received a letter from Riley in mid-September seeking more information on why students were not back in classrooms despite their communities being rated green or gray/white per the metric.

Riley reiterated during the meeting that the department wants to see students back in classrooms.

“At this time we feel like most of our schools should be back in person to the greatest extent possible,” Riley said. “We don’t know if there will be a second spike in the future or not, but [districts] can use this metric going forward, again, based on multiple weeks of data to kind of make good decisions about where their schools should be.”

Stephanie Sweet, a parent from Andover who spoke during the public comment portion, pleaded that the department reconsider guidance to help more districts return to classrooms. Particularly, she wants to see state education officials relax bus guidelines and the 6-foot spacing mandate for lunchtime.

Sweet noted that just nine miles from her home in Salem, New Hampshire, students are back in classrooms. She also pointed to the thousands of daycares that have operated in Massachusetts for several months with no major outbreaks.

Moving forward, Riley said the department is focusing on supporting districts in areas including technical assistance, monitoring quality instruction and collecting data.

Riley noted that the state assisted districts in obtaining 22,000 Chromebooks during a worldwide backlog of the devices. Nearly all of the Chromebooks are in and the rest will be in this week, the commissioner said.

MCAS testing was also a topic of discussion during the meeting. It is anticipated that MCAS will be administered this school year, Riley said.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Patrick McQuillan, an education professor at Boston College, suggested that DESE could take its newly-implemented civics project and use that as a replacement for the MCAS exam.

Related Content:

  • Mass. communities with low COVID rates should return to in-person learning, Gov. Baker reiterates
  • Here’s how this residential school in Mass. maintained zero student coronavirus cases during the pandemic

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