By Katie Lannan
DEC. 15, 2020…..New regulations adopted Tuesday after fraught discussion about student mental health and the concerns of teachers on the ground will set minimum requirements for how much live instruction Massachusetts schools must provide if they are still conducting at least some remote teaching.
Described by Elementary and Secondary Commissioner Jeffrey Riley as an urgent step towards addressing the isolation and disconnection caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that are driving a youth mental health crisis, the changes were adopted on a 7-4 vote during a meeting where teachers union representatives presented a declaration of no-confidence in Riley that had been signed by more than 100 locals.
“We think this is an emergency, a crisis of mental health for our children and, very candidly, I think we’re going to lose some of our children if we don’t do something,” Riley said. “And it’s not a perfect solution. This is not a gotcha for school districts. This is done in the best interest of our kids, so we are asking our superintendents and our teachers to do a little extra in a small number of circumstances.”
The amendments were approved on an emergency basis, and Riley plans to bring them back to the board for final adoption in February after a public comment period.
Set to take effect on Jan. 19, the rule will require schools that are operating in a remote model to provide at least some synchronous instruction — where students can directly interact with a teacher or their peers in real-time — each school day. Remote districts and schools will need to provide at least 40 hours of synchronous instruction over a 10-day period, averaged across grades.
Districts and schools using a hybrid model will have to provide at least 35 hours of live instruction — a combination of in-person and synchronous remote teaching — over a 10-school day period.
In a memo summarizing the amendments, Riley said he is “extremely concerned about the increased prevalence of student mental health challenges arising during the pandemic” and said frequent connections with teachers and peers can help combat feelings of isolation.
Child psychiatrist Dr. Mathieu Bermingham of the Metro West Center for Well Being said that routines, recreation and relationships with a caring adult help children cope with crises.
“For many young people, that’s the teacher or somebody in the school, that caring adult,” he told the board.
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said the regulations “will help address the wide variation in access to live instruction that research shows currently exists,” and praised the state’s plan to accompany “the new requirement with support for districts currently not meeting benchmarks.”
The four board members who voted against the changes — Vice Chair James Morton, Darlene Lombos, Amanda Fernandez and student representative Jasper Coughlin — questioned whether they were the right approach.
“The question for me is not so much the content of the regulations, it’s the process,” Morton said. “It’s implementing a set of regulations that’s going to feel, no disrespect intended, it’s going to feel heavy-handed. The emergency is not the implementation of the regulation, the emergency is the raging coronavirus and how we need to give it some time to settle down a little bit. Why now? Why is it essential that we implement these regulations today?”
Lombos said she wanted to see more of a dialogue between educators in the field and mental health experts, and Coughlin described himself as a “pretty motivated” student who nonetheless feels an urge to text friends while on school Zoom calls.
“I’m not exactly sure how more hours of live instruction will equate to a higher quality of connection with teachers and other students,” Coughlin, a Billerica Memorial High School senior, said.
Billerica superintendent Tim Piwowar struck a similar note during a public comment period, saying the new measures “focus on the quantity of teaching that is delivered, not the quality of learning that is achieved.”
“It is only now, at the eleventh hour, that these regulations are trying to provide blueprints for a building that has already been built,” he said.
The regulations do not require schools to adopt a certain learning model.
The Baker administration has been prodding schools to bring students back into classrooms and avoid remote-only learning wherever possible, a source of friction with teachers unions who have pushed for surveillance testing and other measures they say would help their members feel safe.
Haverhill Education Association President Anthony Parolisi read a declaration he said was signed by more than 100 local teachers unions representing more than 50,000 members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, backing a no-confidence vote in Riley and citing concerns about his leadership during the pandemic.
Parolisi, a civics teacher, described the votes and declaration as a grassroots effort and said the signatories want to see Riley change his practices, listen more to educators, and “stop trying to overrule local decisions and strong-arm them into reopening schools.”
“We are trying, with our superintendents and school committees, to hold this fragile and difficult system of remote and hybrid learning together for the benefit of our students,” Parolisi said. “It is extremely disruptive when the commissioner changes the rules without even talking to us about what is working, what isn’t, what support we need from the state to succeed.”
Responding to the unions’ votes, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education said in a statement that instances of in-school COVID-19 transmission in Massachusetts have been “very limited.”
“While unions engage in baseless attacks, we remain committed to children’s education and the best interests of staff, students and families and continue to believe that in person learning is best for the academic and emotional health of our students,” said the spokeswoman, Colleen Quinn.
Riley and the board did not directly comment on the no-confidence votes during the meeting.
Member Paymon Rouhanifard told the commissioner later in the discussion that one of the main reasons he joined the panel is because of Riley’s “reputation as someone who listens and cares intently about what those who may have opposing views have to say.”
Riley said there would be more opportunities for dialogue around the learning-time regulations.
“I have a 25-year-plus career in trying to work with everyone to try to get good results for kids, and we’re going to continue to do that,” he said. “What I’m offering today is an emergency amendment because I am incredibly concerned about the physical well-being of our children.”