About That Distance Learning… Local School Officials Debate Legal and Technical Obstacles for Connecticut Schools

in Health/Topic: Education

LYME/OLD LYME — With schools in the state closed for a minimum of two weeks in a state-mandated effort to slow the spread of Coronavirus, school officials are looking into the option of establishing distance learning curricula, a first for public schools in the state.

“The state has rapidly changed their position on distance learning,” said Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser, in a video-streamed special board of education meeting on Monday night. “On Friday they were discouraging it, but now they are looking at ways to make it available to every school and every district.”

In fact, although the special meeting was called to approve a required distance learning waiver application for the state, during the meeting Neviaser received an email that may have eliminated the need for a waiver and mandated that all schools abide by their scheduled end of term – in the case of Lyme-Old Lyme, June 19th.

“Anything at this point is on the table because nobody can predict what is going to happen here,” Neviaser said.

Several private and parochial schools in the region have had distance learning implemented during snow days for years, said Suzanne Thompson, a board of education member at the meeting. Those schools have been able to continue education despite school closures.

“With a slogan like ‘A private school in a public school setting,’ we have certain expectations,” Thompson said. “Our families expect us to be like these private schools that already have distance learning in place.”

Unlike private schools, however, there are a host of potential legal concerns that arise when public schools venture into internet-based learning — primarily equity when it comes to resources and special education.

Neviaser said that the hurdles to providing distance education at all grade levels would be significant. “Nobody in the state of Connecticut has done this at all grade levels,” said Neviaser.. “For high school and middle school this will be one thing, but not necessarily for elementary and pre-k. I’m concerned that our teachers have a vast array of different skill levels in terms of digital technology.”

Neviaser also wondered how districts would meet legal mandates for special education.

“If we open school, we have to open school for every student and we have to abide by every student’s IEP,” Neviaser said. “Many students simply can’t do digital or distance learning and what do we do for students at outplaced facilities if they are closed?”

With new guidance from the Center for Disease Control recommending school closures for a minimum of 8 to 20 weeks, end-of-term testing is also a significant concern.

When it comes to standardized testing, the Connecticut Department of Education has applied for a waiver of federal requirements for statewide testing — the SBAC and SAT.

Neviaser said that while a waiver may seem like a simple solution, for our juniors it could mean that they will need to find an alternative means of taking and paying for the SAT for college applications.

For AP tests, “the College Board has agreed to work with districts to find an alternate date if their schools are closed during the March and April test dates,” said Peter Yazbak, communications director for the Connecticut Department of Education.

Tom Mooney, a professor of education law at the University of Connecticut School of Law, notified superintendents across the state that in his view it is not possible for any district to meet all of the legal requirements for education by the state with distance learning.

Members of the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education also urged Neviaser to provide more frequent communications with parents who are anxiously wondering what is going to happen.

“I’m hearing from parents that they want to know what is going to be happening. A lot of people are finding out things from other districts and we need to make sure they know that we are working on a solution,” said Martha Shoemaker, a board member from Lyme.

Neviaser pushed back saying, “I don’t want to put a communication out saying we are going to do distance learning starting March 30, we might be back in school then, things are just changing too quickly.”

“To put out a piece of communication out just once a week is not sufficient,” said board member Mary Powell St.Louis. “It would be greatly appreciated if you updated them more often.”

As of now, school districts in the state are closed for the next two weeks, and are waiting for further guidance on whether that timeline will be extended.

The board also discussed how the closures leave school employees — particularly hourly and contract employees — in an unpredictable situation.

“Teachers are salaried employees contracted for 187 days per year, but hourly employees, if they don’t work for the next two weeks they will not be paid,” Neviaser said. “I would like to pay them, it is an unprecedented time and we want to preserve our employees.”

Neviaser said his plan would be to annualize their payments through June 30 so that they will receive a paycheck consistently for the remainder of the school year, no matter how many hours they work.

Although no vote was taken, the board was in agreement.

“I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to keep these people paid, they are important to our district,” said Diane Lenderman, the chair of the board of education.