Peyser: Remote learning could continue in fall
Education department convenes own reopening advisory board
MASSACHUSETTS’S TOP EDUCATION officials warned on Wednesday that schools should not expect to return to completely normal activities this September. School will look different when it starts, and there is the possibility that in-person education will be suspended again.
“Remote learning will be a much larger factor in planning for next school year,” said Education Secretary Jim Peyser. “Even if we start school in a quasi-normal fashion, we have to be prepared for the possibility in-person education will be interrupted again.”
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito is co-chairing a commission that will make recommendations for reopening the Massachusetts economy, beginning as soon as next week. But that group is not expected to address schools, which Gov. Charlie Baker has ordered closed for the rest of the school year due to coronavirus.
Peyser and the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Jeff Riley, speaking at a legislative oversight hearing convened by the Education Committee, said the state education department has formed its own advisory board to guide the reopening of K-12 schools. The board is led by department officials and includes representatives from the education and public health worlds.
Riley said specific areas the board will look at include: best practices for social distancing in school buildings, on busses, and during lunch and recess; the ability to offer sports and extracurricular activities; possibilities for modifying school schedules; the need for more mental health supports to meet students’ social and emotional needs; and the need to procure or require face masks for students and staff.
Both Peyser and Riley acknowledged the difficulties of remote learning and stressed the importance of state policymakers developing plans to make the transition easier if closing schools becomes necessary again next year. Peyser said he wants to get to the point where schools can toggle between remote learning and in-person learning as “standard operating procedure” rather than as an emergency response to a changing situation.
Among the biggest challenges is digital connectivity. Riley said 9 percent of Massachusetts students do not have internet at home, and 15 percent of students do not have access to an electronic device that they do not have to share. Riley estimated that it would cost the state $50 million to address all the technology issues. He said state officials are working to get donations from foundations and technology companies, but may also require more state money.
At the hearing, Kim Stevens, who lives in the rural Western Massachusetts town of Colrain and owns a farm market, dairy, and popcorn company with her husband, said her two elementary school-age children can only get satellite internet at their house. They can do basic web browsing but cannot watch explanatory videos or join live chats, which has hurt their ability to complete their schoolwork. Stevens said some families she knows sit in parking lots so their children can access the internet, but with her and her husband working full-time, the idea of spending hours with their kids sitting in a parking lot would be “laughable if it were not one of our only options.”
Other challenges for education officials involve working out how to best provide special education services and to reach out to English language learners.
Next year, schools will also have to figure out what gaps students have in their education due to this year’s closure and how to remediate those gaps.
While some of that process could be started through summer school, it is not clear what summer school will look like either. Riley said a decision will be made in the next few weeks about whether summer school can be held in person in July. Districts are now being instructed to prepare for both remote and in-person learning.
Chad d’Entremont, executive director of Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, added that the students themselves will be different when schools reopen. “Many students will bring with them the effects of trauma, most will have fallen behind academically, and an increased number of students may drop out,” d’Entremont said.
D’Entremont said schools will need to recognize and deal with trauma, address learning loss with new strategies, and find ways to reengage students who have been lost. “Estimates suggest thousands of students have become disconnected from any learning experience,” he said.