Education Board Grants Emergency Powers To Commissioner

BOSTON (State House News Service) — The day before school districts are due to submit new plans required under a 2019 funding reform law, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said he expects a legislative fix soon.

The April 1 deadline for superintendents to submit plans detailing steps they'll take to close persistent achievement gaps was set before Massachusetts schools, under orders of Gov. Charlie Baker, shuttered their classrooms for a period that will last several weeks in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.

It's one of various dates and other provisions laid out in statute and regulations that education officials are now looking to adjust.

Meeting via video conference call on Tuesday, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved an emergency regulation giving Riley the authority to "to suspend, extend, or waive any timeline or due date in the Board's regulations to the extent permitted by state and federal law."

Rhoda Schneider, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's general counsel, noted that the regulation does not cover deadlines or timelines set by state or federal law, and said the expectation is that Riley will use the authority "very sparingly" and only in cases arising from the current state of emergency and school closures.

Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill last week aimed at giving municipal and state authorities more flexibility in their responses to the pandemic, and his original version of that legislation included language allowing Riley to modify or waive the requirement for the annual statewide MCAS assessment and to set a new deadline for districts to submit their achievement gap-closing plans.

That language was omitted from the version of the bill the House Ways and Means Committee released on Friday, which was later passed by the House. The Senate amended the bill before passing it on Monday, but did not restore those education-related provisions.

Riley said Tuesday that he still anticipates that lawmakers will grant an extension to the Wednesday deadline for plan submission. The House and Senate were not in session on Tuesday and plan to meet on Wednesday.

"We do believe that relief will be coming from Beacon Hill on this deadline on Wednesday, which I recognize is late," he said.

As school districts grasp for remote learning plans, Education Secretary James Peyser said April should be a "month of learning" for students, who can take the opportunity to delve more deeply into material they've previously covered.

"We can't write off this school year for these children who depend so much on learning and progressing and accelerating in their learning," he said.

On the MCAS exams, Riley said the state has received "directional approval" from the federal government on a testing waiver for this year, and expects to receive a letter later this week officially granting an exemption from testing requirements.

State law also speaks to MCAS requirements, "and Beacon Hill will be taking that item up in the coming days," Riley said.

"They may allow me the discretion to postpone, modify or completely cancel the MCAS," he said. "If and when that's done, you should expect me to make decisions in short order in the best interest of our students."

Baker addressed the MCAS and district plans in his daily press conference on the coronavirus, referring to both issues as "things we've gotten a commitment from the Legislature to act on."

Acknowledging that the April 1 date for the plans remains a requirement under state law on March 31, Baker said he believes the education department will have the ability to "provide some cushion" for school districts.

Baker's original March 15 schools order required a closure until at least April 6, and he extended that last week to run through May 4. Many schools had made the decision at the local level to shut their doors earlier in the month.

Riley said the department plans to issue guidance, either Tuesday or Wednesday, on the permissibility of using April vacation week for additional learning time.

He said he's been fielding questions and comments about high school graduations, and "much of that will depend on what happens next, if we are back in school on May 4 or not, so we'll provide more information in the coming days."

By Katie Lannan, State House News Service

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