State may make new learning times permanent

Christian M. Wade, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
·2 min read

Feb. 22—State education leaders are set to decide whether to cement rules covering how much time students must spend in class or learning remotely.

On Tuesday, the state Board of Education will vote on rules that require schools to provide a minimum of 35 hours of live instruction over a 10-day period under hybrid learning models. For remote instruction, or online only models, districts must provide at least 40 hours of "synchronous" teaching over a 10-day period.

The rules require school districts to do a live check-in with remote and hybrid students at least once per day.

The 12-member education board narrowly approved the standards on an emergency basis in December. This week's vote would make the new learning times permanent.

In a memo to board members, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley brushed aside concerns raised by parents, teachers and students, saying he is "convinced that requiring a minimum number of live and synchronous hours is the right approach for our students."

Riley said the rules are aimed at dealing with a "distressing increase" in mental health issues among school-age children during the pandemic.

"Feelings of isolation and disconnection among our students are a contributing cause to this growing mental health crisis, the effects of which may persist for years," he said. "We know that one way to address these concerns is to provide students with frequent connections and interactions with teachers and peers."

The regulations don't lengthen the standard school day, which is 5 hours for elementary students and 5 1/2 hours for secondary schools, or the state's minimum 180-day calendar, Riley said.

About two-thirds of the state's school districts were already meeting the learning time standards when they were first proposed last fall, he said.

In comments submitted ahead of Tuesday's vote, some school administrators said the minimum learning times have led to confusion halfway though the school year and haven't been bargained with teachers' unions.

Other critics suggest that a greater emphasis on remote, online learning will exacerbate the "digital divide" between wealthy and poor districts and mean more "screen time" for students.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a pro-business group, wrote to the board in support of the minimum learning times.

Ed Lambert, the group's executive director, said learning time during the pandemic is "uneven" across schools and students are "disconnecting" amid the disparities.

"There is a growing consensus nationally that live and synchronous instruction is necessary to prevent learning loss and keep students connected," he wrote to board members. "Live instruction more closely aligns with real educational experiences, helping to reengage students in their studies."

Lambert also urged state education officials to enforce the new regulations to ensure that the changes will "lead to meaningful opportunities for students."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com