State Capitol Week in Review – July 3, 2020

During the upcoming school year, local districts will have flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances created by the outbreak of the coronavirus, thanks to a set of waivers adopted by the state Board of Education during a special meeting.

The waivers affect policies that govern the amount of time a teacher has to spend with students in classroom instruction. They affect teachers’ planning time and teachers’ assignments to non-instructional duties. They affect how much time children will be at recess and the length of the school day. They affect maximum class sizes.

The waivers affect conventional schools and charter schools, allowing them to mix virtual instruction with traditional classroom instruction.

When school districts applied for the waivers they committed to continued tracking of student achievement. As educators prepare for the challenges of the upcoming school year, a common concern is that some students may fall through the cracks because their families lack access to digital technology, such as Internet access and up-to-date computers.

Teacher training must be updated, to account for the greater use of technology not only for instruction of students but also for meetings with parents and other staff.

The waivers provide flexibility for specific education standards and are not written to allow deviations from broader state laws requiring schools to offer equal and adequate education to all students. If it is determined that a local district has abused the availability of waivers, the state Education Board will be able to revoke their waivers.

One Board member who voted against the waivers said that they allowed local districts too much leeway.

However, an official with the Education Department countered that districts must submit for review their plans to rely on waivers, and that there would be penalties for abusing them.

The waivers allow a school board to amend personnel policies and the change will take effect immediately, without having to go through a review by the personnel policy committee. Teachers may be assigned non-instructional duties for more than an hour a day without additional pay, if it is necessary for the district to comply with Health Department guidelines on staying safe during the pandemic.

Many of the waivers only apply on days when schools offer virtual classes. For example, on those days the school day does not have to be six hours on average. Recess for elementary students does not have to be 40 minutes because the students are at home on their computers.

On those days the district is not required to provide teachers with a 30 minute lunch period without any duties, since the teachers will be working from home or from a location away from the school campus.

In related news, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement that the organization “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

While recognizing the need for safety measures, the pediatricians state that the “importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”

The pediatricians say that virtual classes make it difficult to recognize children’s learning disabilities, signs of physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, depression or suicidal tendencies.

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