October 20, 2020
MSAA Finance Committee Meeting with Commissioner Riley
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
In addition to the Finance Committee of MSAA, Bill Gaine, Executive Director, Beth Wittcoff, Assistant Executive Director, Ron Sanborn, NAESP Representative, and Dan Richards, NASSP Representative were in attendance. Commissioner Riley was joined by several senior staff members from DESE.
The main topics of conversation was the impact of COVID-19 on the stress level of administrators. As one Principal wrote, “It has been really challenging to open school in the age of COVID...The burden on administrators is at a crisis level.” The Commissioner was supportive of our efforts to open schools and was able to answer many of these questions in great detail. In addition, other main topics discussed were the educator evaluation system and what that will look like this year, MCAS and the possibility of a DESE/MSAA partnership to provide high quality mentors to administrators across the Commonwealth.
Throughout these notes, unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the Commissioner. Questions submitted by Principals are bolded and italicized.
Colleges and universities fund COVID testing for 100% of their communities on a regular basis, is there some way for the state to fund COVID testing for its schools?
The Commissioner shared the guidance from CDC stating, “You will remember the CDC does not recommend that schools do not do widespread testing. The Federal government is working to allot large quantities of rapid tests to the states and MA in line to get two million tests. The Commissioner stated that, “working with the Department of Public Health and Health and Human Services and the Governor’s advisory board, there may be some testing...Stay tuned for more information.”
He shared that no one has yet done widespread testing because it is cost prohibitive costing $80 per test. If we were to have done widespread testing it would cost 50-75 million dollars for the first quarter. “We are currently looking to see what the efficacy is.” Commissioner Riley shared that what they have seen since school started is that individual cases have popped up in schools but that community spread is not taking place in school. “This is in large part to distancing, hand sanitizer and masks.” DESE is remaining cautiously optimistic and will continue to track the data and use it to plot our course towards maintaining the current low incidence of the virus in schools.
If the teacher can face the students, all of whom are facing the teacher, can't desks be positioned around the classroom facing one another as long as they are six feet apart? Can this be clarified in the guidelines.
“Our guidelines say that they should be facing in the same direction...It is ok to have short conversations face to face six feet with masks.” Commissioner RIley urged all educators to use the reasonableness standard in assessing all situations and stated, “to the greatest extent possible face the same direction.”
My school is a fully remote school running our regular schedule and full program. We have provided opportunities for students to come on campus outside for relationship building and will continue to do that. Being named as one of the “Big 16” was unjust. Regarding the judgement that the hybrid model is better than remote, please explain how having students in a building for two days and asynchronous three days is considered a top model?
Commissioner Riley stated, “No one considers it a top model. Full in person is better. Hybrid is better than full remote. You get better education when they are in full person.” He went on to say that “most people are in hybrid or full in person with most being in hybrid.” In speaking to school districts who are completely remote like those in red zone communities, he shared that even in those communities most are bringing in their high needs students.
Has there been a review of time on learning for hybrid schools vs. remote high schools?
“This question is about connection vs hours; we think you can do both. We can work with individual districts if they don’t feel they can meet the hours. We are going to be auditing people and looking to see what time on learning looks like. We are getting complaints from parents but we want to have a reasonable standard for this...The goal is to have it more robust this year which is why we are saying take attendance, give grades...and find the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning.”
Has there been a review of the quality of teaching and learning in hybrid schools vs. remote high schools?
Stating that the Department has gotten “complaints that districts aren’t meeting time on learning, Commissioner Riley shared, “We will be reviewing districts and how they set up their remote learning to make sure they can get their hours.”
What can the Commissioner do to support administrators and districts with the Union?
In supporting DESE and the Governor’s strong support for opening schools in the Commonwealth to in person learning, he stated, “We have relied on the data...other states in New England are opening more robustly than we are...The three weeks when towns were green we didn’t do anything.” He did say that they are now beginning to question why districts who have been green for nine weeks. My fear is that we might have to do remote later and that this opening of school fully remote was a missed opportunity. When looking at whether to open in person or to go remote, Commissioner Riley is asking school officials to “look at trend data in your community and make the right decision for your community.” He encouraged districts to look at the reasons for the uptick in cases if there are some. “If it’s because of a college or a nursing home, schools don’t need to close.”
Would the Commissioner consider less school days this year or further reducing hours requirements?
“Not at this time. I do think we were, as far as we know, one of the only states to reduce the school year by ten days.” Recognizing he “got a lot of flack for that” he shared that he felt it was important to compromise with the Teacher’s Associations on this issue. Understanding that “all three models are different from what traditional schooling looked like,” the ten additional days allowed all schools to prepare for all three models. He ended with a firm, “We won’t be adding more days.”
Would the Commissioner consider eliminating the requirements of some of the courses which require additional safety considerations?
“We are continuously looking at the data. We are working with the vocational courses...We are always working with our medical advisers on what is best to operate.” He did say that Phase 3 of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan may allow for some changes in the guidance for music and band. He stated, “Stay tuned.”
Because all districts now have remote learning capacity, can snow days as we know them be eliminated along with the need for students to "make them up". In the event of school closure due to inclement weather, can the day be full remote for everyone and still count toward the school year days count?
The Commissioner was excited to do a big reveal with MSAA on this one! “You my friends will be the first to hear that yes, for this year only, districts can choose, instead of using snow days, you can have a full remote day.” Of course he went on to say that this was a bounded one year exception. He further explained that the blizzard bag pilot was not allowing for legally mandated services to take place for all students so it was decided, after consulting with legal counsel, that this pilot would not be done writ large. “However, in a time of crisis, we will allow it to happen...We will make a decision for the future...My guess is we won’t do this in the future.”
In the past, if a student was removed from class due to unsafe or extremely disruptive behavior, a certain amount of time out of the classroom would then be considered a day of ISS. With the mask wearing regulations, if a student will not wear one, we cannot allow them in the classroom due to the safety of others. Will this be considered a day of ISS? If a parent comes to pick the child up for this “mask refusal” behavior, is that to be considered an OSS?
“If a student is not able to wear a mask for medical, behavioral or other reasons, they can wear a face shield...The consequences for a refusal to wear masks is a local decision...What the doctors will tell you is the more we can mask children the better we all are...There shouldn’t be consequences for students who can’t wear masks.”
Is there an update to whether there will be any changes to the evaluation system this year?
Commissioner Riley stated at the outset, “The expectation for annual evaluations...remains in place.” Recognizing that the “implementation may look different and feel different,” the expectation currently is that the evaluation process will move forward. The goal is “meaningful supervision and feedback in the context of in person, hybrid and remote learning.”
Administrators are strongly encouraged to click here to visit DESE’s website devoted to Educator Evaluation in 2020-2021. The second bullet provides a Powerpoint entitled “Educators Evaluation Overview 2020-2021” that can be used with staff and explains their thinking on ed eval this year including focusing on fewer indicators and creating SMARTIE goals which include a lens for inclusion and equity. The eighth bullet provides an additional Powerpoint used this month for a webinar for school and district leaders on this topic.
Many local unions included the teacher evaluation system as a part of their MOA/MOU. If the union feels that participation in the evaluation system is not equitable during the pandemic, can that be decided at the local level, or does the state need to approve that since educator ratings are reported at the state level?
“Educator evaluation is a mandatory subject of bargaining between schools and districts.” … “A district and union could negotiate things that are not regulations like timelines.”
Several Principals wrote sharing their views about MCAS testing this year and sharing their beliefs about the subject. One Principal wrote passionately, “I am disappointed in the state's decision to move forward with MCAS testing during this school year. Teachers and students are doing a tremendous job overcoming the challenges we are facing in our schools. This decision is difficult to understand as the data gained will likely be viewed by most as not valid. Comparing districts when some districts are fully remote, hybrid, or fully in-person creates significant inequities between school districts that will again make the data hard to view as useful or valid. In addition, we did not administer MCAS last year, so we are not able to measure growth from last year. Our in-person learning days are precious and to give them up for state testing that will not produce valid, useful data is just hard to understand.”
Another Principal wrote, “I have always been a proponent of standardized state testing and have been an advocate of MCAS as a tool to create school improvement and raise learning. This decision deeply troubles me as it gives the impression that the state's priorities are not aligned with the best interests of students, teachers, and schools. My question is simply, why is the state moving forward with MCAS for this school year and how will the data gained from this administration of MCAS be used?”
Another Principal wrote, “Starting a letter about standardized testing with “I am pleased to release this information” seems to highlight a disconnect between DESE and the educators and administrators who are working so hard in a completely new educational environment. I felt compelled to bring this disparity to light as well as ask that DESE consider their phrasing used in memos.”
Commissioner RIley initiated dialogue on this topic by stating, “I know that people believe that I possess a magic wand to be able to end MCAS testing. It is more complicated than that.” He then reminded us of the process he shared with us last spring to make this happen. “In order to get the power...the first thing was to apply for a waiver with the federal government.” “Federal money is contingent on many things including the testing.” “Secretary Betsy DeVos said there will not be any waivers this year.” “We are hearing rumors that even if there is a Secretary change, this may not be changed.” Once a waiver is granted to this federal legislation, the next step in to go to “Beacon HIll because under state law, MCAS has to be given.” He explained that he was “bounded this authority by just last year only.”
He concluded, “We are holding people responsible for the MCAS this year. As a state, we need to know what the damage has been with districts being out. We need to diagnose what this pandemic has done...People know that we have held people harmless in the past.”
Vice President Julie Vincentsen shared the concerns of the membership she has heard including issues around equity, instructional/administrative time, it is gratuitous, and the emotional health of our children and staff. A position paper from the Education Policy Committee will be shared soon with the Commissioner and with DESE.
In response, the Commissioner stated, “We understand there will be people on both sides..At this time it is the right thing to say to keep focusing things on teaching...If things change we will make the right decision.”
President Kathleen Duff asked how we could keep the conversation open about competencies. Commissioner Riley stated, “Things change. We can use this forum...I had no issue with cancelling last spring...I think you should expect that I will do what I think is best moving forward...Because there are so many unknowns, our position is that MCAS is on but we will change that if we need to.”
MSAA Mentoring Program for Administrators
An Opportunity to Partner with DESE
As we closed our meeting, President Kathleen Duff asked Commissioner Riley to consider how we could be a team together on providing high quality mentors to all administrators. We shared with him about how many districts provide a mentor as a compliance task as opposed to the districts who use MSAA’s highly qualified and trained mentors. We talked about the importance of having a robust state-wide mentoring program.
Alice Shull, Mike Connolly and four others periodically meet with Clare Abbot and Stefany Tomlinson of DESE as well as Paul Fleming of Learning Forward to discuss the Induction and Mentoring Handbook that they are working on; there have been three meetings since April. We are happy to be of support to the mentoring process in Massachusetts. In fact, MSAA strives to be the official Mentoring Program of the DESE.
As you know MSAA has a trained mentoring cadre who have been working with principals and assistant principals in Massachusetts. Based on the number of trained mentors not matched with a new administrator and the Superintendents preoccupation with school opening and financial constraints, understandably so, we are very concerned about the lack of mentorship happening. Mentoring of new principals is more necessary now than ever! It is an inexpensive way to support new leaders (approximately $2500 per year). Research shows that mentoring reduces principal turnover. Looking at the cost for a system every time a principal turns over, a $2500 investment toward principal retention is a small investment for a large return.
We are seeking encouragement/a recommendation from the Commissioner to the Superintendents in this state to hire mentors for their new leaders. A letter from the Commissioner to Superintendents about this critical issue might change the trajectory regarding the hiring of mentors.
State regulations require mentorship, but there are no teeth in the regulations. Often, a superintendent simply names an internal mentor who unfortunately does not have the time and most likely does not have the training to mentor new leaders.
The Induction and Mentoring Handbook is in the infancy of its development and while we are confident it will provide support to the importance of this work, we are concerned for the present leaders. This same issue was brought to your attention in December of 2019 during one of our meetings. It was asked that the need for a strong mentor be put in your weekly newsletter. Whether hiring a mentor from within or from an outside agency it is important the mentoring being provided is of quality, meaning there should be consistent policies, practices and accountability for everyone. The advantage to the outside agency providing mentorship is not only the structured and documented training a mentor earns, but also the objectivity. MSAA is proud of the intentional and impactful work of its mentors and is excited to continue to enhance this partnership with the DESE.
We want to partner with you. We appreciate you coming to the table. If there is any way we can further enhance that partnership, let us know.
The Commissioner responded, “Yes, we can work on this. We want to have a robust program. I will talk to my people about it. We can set up some time to discuss this as well.” We look forward to this meeting and to continuing our partnership with DESE to support our membership in this way.
Julie A. Vincentsen
MSAA First Vice President
Principal, Hanscom Primary School
Lincoln Public Schools