Opinion: Strong action needed now to avert more educational woes across state

Bill Walczak

Gov. Baker didn’t include schools in his four-part plan to re-open the state. In response to a question, he said that the commissioner of education has put together a task force that has already begun meeting. The team will address the schools reopening issues in a few weeks.
Many states don’t yet have plans, but there are some guidance elements emerging. Maryland has already put together an excellent program.

Massachusetts has led the US in K-12 education for many years, which is why it’s alarming to see our state performing so poorly in that area in dealing with the coronavirus crisis and moving to remote learning. Since the early part of the disruption, national evaluators have improved the state’s grades, but there is no doubt that progress has been moving slowly, disadvantaging many students whose districts lacked urgency.

Some districts have done a terrific job, and some have already given up. The sudden decision to close schools put everyone — students, parents, teachers, administrators, officials — in a difficult situation. At the beginning of January, none of those involved could have imagined that the entire system would need to be transformed to remote learning, let alone in a matter of a few weeks.

Teachers are not routinely trained in remote teaching, and most students are new to learning online. If school districts were depending on the state for direction, what they got at first was confusing messaging. Many districts believed they were told by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that students should not be taught new content because districts would be exposed to litigation if all students were not learning new content (which was not exactly the message from DESE).

There were also collective bargaining issues between districts and some teachers’ unions (Boston took a month to come to terms), and districts varied greatly in how they approached remote learning. Some districts had students who had immediate access to the internet and computers, and others had students who had neither. As a result, many wealthier communities moved forward with new content, while poorer districts — and their students — struggled.

We’re a month away from the end of the school year, and the crisis in equity grows. Since May 4, more than 10,000 Boston Public School students (22 percent of all BPS students, according to a Boston Globe article) have not logged on to any online classes or picked up homework; essentially, they have dropped out of school. Across the state, thousands of students, especially in districts with large numbers of low-income families, basically have lost a third of their school year to the pandemic.

With September in sight and a potential fall surge of COVID-19, we need to move quickly to avert a disaster for efforts to bridge any part of the achievement gap. The first question to be answered is whether and how schools will be able to reopen safely for students and adults. How will students maintain social distance in schools, let alone on buses? How will schools prepare to pivot between remote and on-site learning?

My best guess is that Massachusetts will need to continue remote learning into the fall. This means that we have three months to deal with the technology and family scaffolding issues that prevent many low-income students from participating in remote education, to train teachers to be effective in remote learning, and to develop an appropriate remote learning system, with accountability measures, for all districts.

The second question involves whether schools should require thousands of students who have fallen behind to repeat their 2019-20 school year. If not, how do students catch up so that they’re prepared for the next grade’s curriculum? The alternative to holding back students who are far behind is to have them catch up during the summer. We have one month to figure out how to do this.

The third big question is how to pay for everything. The Mass Taxpayers Foundation forecasts a $6 billion loss in state revenue in FY 2021, which starts July 1. This gigantic shortfall greatly reduces the chances of new revenue for schools from the Student Opportunity Act (SOA).

Even without new funding to the SOA, we have a pressing moral obligation to implement the new funding formula called for in the legislation for how state dollars reach schools. This formula, based on principles of equity, puts a higher percentage of dollars into districts based on numbers of low-income students, English Language Learners, and those with special needs.

We must also insist that federal funding through the Cares Act be used for summer programming for students who have fallen behind. Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley estimates that the cost to ensure that all students have access to technology for education is about $50 million. Finding these dollars must be our priority.

Massachusetts created the public education system in America and has been ranked first in education outcomes for many years. We don’t have much time to demonstrate to the children of the Commonwealth that we deserve continuation of that ranking.

Bill Walczak lives in Dorchester and is a co-founder of both the Codman Square Health Center and Codman Academy, a charter public school.