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The Great Divide

When it comes to online learning, Mass., Rhode Island take wildly divergent paths

Rhode Island stresses academic business as usual, Massachusetts opts for local control

Evan Lancia, an English teacher at Cranston High School West, reached out to students in his University of Rhode Island early enrollment writing class.
Evan Lancia, an English teacher at Cranston High School West, reached out to students in his University of Rhode Island early enrollment writing class.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

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All but three of the 15 students in Evan Lancia’s senior writing class at Cranston High School West were logged into a Google Meet one recent Thursday afternoon. A young woman sat at a desk in her bedroom, offering poignant thoughts about the mental health of those in quarantine. Another classmate joined from outdoors, explaining that he wanted to focus on ways students can stay active.

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At 80 percent attendance, Lancia’s otherwise successful class was actually below average these days for Rhode Island, where more than 90 percent of students log in each day. But it’s far better than many communities in neighboring Massachusetts, including Boston where only about 50 percent of students log in.

The two states epitomize the starkly different approaches states are taking to learning in the era of COVID-19. Tiny Rhode Island, with just 142,000 public school students, laid out a clear mandate that teachers and students would continue with business as usual — except now online. Massachusetts, by contrast, has left the extent and depth of online learning largely up to individual school districts and teachers while encouraging them to avoid introducing any new content for the time being.

There are no statewide numbers for student participation in Massachusetts, but individual districts report widely varying numbers, from about 95 percent in Andover and other suburban towns, to 30 percent in Chelsea, where the virtual classrooms are much emptier.

Some of my students “need more structure,” said Shanae Paulino, who teaches English as a second language at Boston’s Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. She’s tweaked her approach every week, settling recently on offering one “live lesson” each week over Zoom, for which attendance is usually about 20 percent.

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Paulino applauds the Boston district for securing laptops and Internet connections for all students but wishes that officials had then followed up with clearer guidance on what “school” should look like these days. If the state had provided clearer expectations, Paulino said, many teachers and students would have risen to the occasion.

“Massachusetts is not using the bully pulpit in the way that you’d want to see,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based education policy think tank. By contrast, he described Rhode Island’s “tough love approach” as ultimately more “loving ... because I think what we’re learning is what kids are desperate for right now is some sense of normalcy.”

Massachusetts’ leaders counter that their approach is more practical and realistic for the circumstances of this state, with over 400 school districts in starkly different circumstances when it comes to Internet access and much more.

“There are some people who think we should demand that everyone comply with state mandates, but that would never work in a local control state like Massachusetts,” said state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley in a recent interview.

In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, competing philosophies about what children and families need in a crisis also seem to be driving these decisions. Massachusetts officials have said focusing too much on academics could exacerbate inequality if some students can’t — or don’t choose to — access the courses and material; safety and emotional health should take priority, they say. Meanwhile Rhode Island officials believe the best way to ensure equity is to focus on academics.

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Students and teachers should be “spending as much time and effort as you would if you were in school,” said Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, speaking at a press conference not long after schools in the state shut down. “This is only going to work if it’s all hands on deck.”

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Rhode Island was the first New England state to decide to close schools, and immediately thereafter state officials made a series of swift and resolute decisions about what teaching and learning should look like.

On Friday, March 13, a student at a high school in Cranston tested positive for COVID-19, bringing total cases in the state to 16. By that afternoon, Raimondo ordered all the state’s schools to close and start their one-week April vacations the next Monday. That would give teachers a week with students off to plan.

Raimondo required districts to submit distance learning plans to state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green for approval, who was upfront with districts that she did not intend to set a lower bar. “Our kids need ... the normalcy of learning,” she said. Districts had to submit proposals that mapped out between four and six hours of instructional time each day, a plan to ensure students had access to computers and the Internet, and daily communication between teachers and students.

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Not every class is required to run for the same amount of time that students would be in a traditional classroom, but a similar workload is expected. Rather than assign grades to students, the state has encouraged districts to adopt a pass/fail model.

Rhode Island’s firm approach was made possible by quick buy-in from its teachers unions, which received assurances from the state that the virtual days would count toward the 180-day school year and that teachers and other staffers would continue getting paid. State officials plan to announce Thursday that they are extending closures through the end of the school year.

“Everything was thought out early on, and we made adjustments as we went along,” said Larry Purtill, president of National Education Association Rhode Island, the state’s largest teachers union. “It’s not perfect. It’s not as good as it was. But there’s still education happening.”

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Most states have not been as dogmatic as Rhode Island — with only a few, including Texas and Alabama, requiring districts to teach new material.

In Massachusetts, guidance to schools has come out more gradually. On March 15, Governor Charlie Baker ordered schools statewide to close for three weeks. By that point, the number of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts had grown to 164. State officials said nothing specific then about teacher and student expectations during the closure.

A week and a half later, shortly after extending the closures to early May, Riley, the education commissioner, issued the first recommendations for how online learning should work. Riley suggested schools focus on “reinforcing skills already taught this school year.”

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“We recognize this is a traumatic time for our kids. We want to get them settled, and then we want to get them in a routine,” he said.

Massachusetts’ other recommendations, endorsed by the state’s largest teachers union, were that students “engage in meaningful and productive learning” for about half of a regular school day through a combination of teacher-directed and “self-directed learning.”

The Globe obtained an earlier, written draft of the state’s recommendations — and an e-mail thread responding to it — that show how the guidance changed with the input of teachers unions, superintendents, and others. The initial draft circulated by the state on March 24 suggested a few hours of instruction each day from teachers and, “ideally,” daily contact.

In an e-mail, Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, responded with his union’s view: “This is not a normal time. We will fail our students, their families and educators if we try to impose ‘normalcy’ on them. Do not pretend that education can proceed as before, that school can be replicated at home.”

Superintendents had their own concerns. Some worried about spotty Internet connectivity, according to Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Others, in economically depressed areas, worried that unemployed parents and families would focus on daily survival, not homework.

In the end, Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, credits Riley for issuing guidance that was “flexible enough to let districts figure out what to do.”

Riley said in a recent interview that he may recommend teachers do more in the future, but he declined to elaborate. When Massachusetts announced Tuesday that schools would be closed through the end of the academic year, Riley said he would issue more guidance soon.

The state shouldn’t make significant changes without first collecting more data and information on how well things have been going, Merrie Najimy, the association’s president, said in a recent interview. She wants to know, for instance, whether families’ basic food needs are being met.

Najimy also contends that requiring more formal academic instruction right now could actually widen achievement gaps between students of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. That’s because wealthier districts and families have more Internet access, parents with flexible schedules, and more physical space and resources to accommodate children’s learning.

“If we try to meet the needs of the affluent communities” in forging ahead full speed, Najimy said. “We deepen the divide.”

But Robin Lake, director of the Washington-based Center on Reinventing Public Education, believes the opposite. “A lot of the state guidance was to wait and think through equity and try to get this right before you do anything,” Lake said. “That was pretty dangerous to do because private schools and advantaged families were not going to wait.”

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Massachusetts’ approach has led to vastly different experiences across the state, depending partly on local leadership and the kinds of deals teachers unions have struck.

In Boston, for example, when schools closed in mid-March, teachers were tasked with communicating with students once a week; there was no guidance on how much instruction students should receive each day. An agreement the teachers union and district signed last week requires teachers to communicate with students at least once every three school days and to track daily student attendance; it specifies that remote learning will generally take place for three hours in the morning or afternoon. Teachers are not required to have face time with students.

Paulino, the Madison Park teacher, said she’s torn on whether holding more than one Zoom class a week would be a help or a hindrance. On the one hand, some of her students, many of whom have only been in the country for a year or two, tell her they wish they had classes each day during “real school” hours.

“My students just feel more comfortable knowing that I’m physically there when they can ask a question,” she said. But others are dealing with a lot of trauma and upheaval; Paulino hasn’t even heard from 15 students since school ended.

In Rhode Island, too, remote learning hasn’t always gone smoothly. Derrick Ciesla, a parent who lives in Coventry, said his high school son — who already had a school-issued computer and had worked a lot online — has fared well. But his elementary-age son and that child’s teachers didn’t have the same comfort level with the technology. The requirement to keep learning new material has led to "a lot of frustration,” he said.

Justin Reich, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Teaching Systems Lab, believes that Massachusetts’ approach might ultimately be more realistic. “The vast majority of American schools are not set up to rapidly switch to remote, online learning,” he wrote in a recent report.

He predicts the barriers to online learning will only grow during the pandemic as more people get sick or lose jobs and have to focus all their energies on daily survival. “Keep it simple,” he wrote. “Schools that do a few simple things well ... will likely be in the best position on the other side of this crisis.”


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.