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When remote school started in Randolph a month ago, Yahaira Lopez hoped that it would keep her twin fifth-grade sons engaged in learning — and out of her hair — for most of the school week.
But that wasn’t happening.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, the twins had a packed schedule of teacher-led Zoom classes. But the other three school days began with a short prerecorded “Morning Message” from the teacher, who explained the day’s assignments and invited them to e-mail her with questions. Often, that greeting lasted less than five minutes, the assignments were easy and quick, and the kids turned to their Xboxes by mid-morning.
“The days that they learn on their own, they’re occupied for an hour tops,” Lopez said. “What am I supposed to do? I don’t want my kids sitting in front of video games all day.” (Randolph school officials did not respond to a request for comment about their remote learning schedules.)
This school year, Massachusetts has reinstated its requirement — temporarily relaxed during the school closures of the spring — that public schools provide at least five hours of “structured learning time” every school day, on average. But interviews with a dozen parents, advocates, and experts reveal that districts vary widely on what constitutes remote learning time, and at least some are failing to live up to the spirit of the state’s requirement, depriving children of their right to a robust education.
Like so much during the pandemic, the disparities in instructional hours could widen existing gaps, as wealthier families can more easily supplement districts’ sometimes meager offerings with private tutors, pricey at-home learning programs, and home-schooling time.
There are also racial equity implications. Black and Latino students in Massachusetts, and nationwide, are more likely to be relying on remote learning this school year, partly because fewer schools have reopened for in-school classes in their communities.
At many schools across the state, students interact directly with teachers online for nearly all of the five hours. But at others, including at least some schools in Somerville, Randolph, and Leominster, they spend large swaths of time in independent study, with fewer than four hours of teacher interaction on the average day (and that includes specials such as music and physical education as interactive time).
The schedule that Yahaira Lopez’s fifth-grade twins were given in Randolph:
Although this isn’t technically illegal, since Massachusetts allows recorded lessons and independent study to count toward structured learning time, it flies in the face of the state’s recommendation that districts offer as many live, interactive classes with teachers as possible. And other states, including Maryland and California, have mandated that students of all ages receive a certain amount of live instruction each school day, a requirement that Massachusetts has hesitated to impose.
Extended independent study for young children is “really alarming and problematic,” said Jennifer Davis, a senior advisor at Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab. She wants Massachusetts officials to require teachers to be available to all students 6.5 hours each school day, though she cautioned that quality matters as much as quantity.
Leaders of three other education advocacy groups are making similar demands, with two of them focused on elementary school students, since that age group struggles the most to learn and study without adult direction. State officials have declined to comment on whether they will consider upping the requirements for districts.
One of the groups, Massachusetts Parents United, which wants at least 4.5 hours of daily interaction, is considering suing the state over the issue, according to founder Keri Rodrigues. “What they’ve done is taken advantage of some of the loose definitions to shoehorn things that don’t fit with what we know about how kids learn,” she said.
The Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership, which advocates for historically underserved students, has called on schools to offer students at least five hours per day of real-time access to teachers. And officials at Boston’s EdNavigator, a nonprofit that provides assistance with school selection and other academic support, said the state should require teachers to be accessible to students during independent work periods during the school day.
Without that real-time feedback, “you’re gutting part of the learning,” said Elysa Severinghaus, EdNavigator’s executive director.
Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley told a virtual town hall of 300 parents Thursday that his department will monitor districts to ensure they meet learning time requirements. But he added that many parents also complain about too much screen time for young children, and districts must strike the right balance.
“It’s much more difficult for a young student to be online all day, and so you’ve got to have quality programming and projects... that parents can do with their children,” Riley said, adding: “We know we have to do better as a commonwealth than we did last [school] year, like everyone in the country.”
Lopez, who chose remote learning out of health concerns for her children, can’t afford to hire a tutor. She bought some math workbooks for her sons at Walmart, and tries to help them as much as she can. But her days are already busy: She was laid off early in the pandemic from her job as a mental health crisis worker and now spends her weekdays trying to study for her master’s degree and apply for jobs. She worries constantly about her family getting evicted and not being able to afford enough food for her sons.
“Not having a teacher to speak to disconnects them even more from the school,” Lopez said. “The impact of their not learning is going to go way past the pandemic.”
The reasons for the reduced instructional time vary. In some districts, the logistics of accommodating both in-person and remote learners have proved challenging. In others, officials have cut class sizes significantly so teachers lead far more classes over the school day but the sessions are shorter in length.
Teachers unions in communities including Hingham have negotiated to scale back live online classes. And in others, such as Boston and Hopkinton, they have balked at having to live-stream classes in order to simultaneously teach kids in school and at home.
The head of the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts said she wouldn’t be opposed to the state’s requiring a certain number of instructional hours, but cautioned against a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach.
“I always want to defer to the educator knowing the children that are in front of them and what they can handle,” said president Beth Kontos. “To come up with an arbitrary number that you have to adhere to could actually make a child very miserable.”
Some districts have also been cautious about imposing too much screen time on young children. In Somerville, where Rodrigues’s second-grade son has nearly two-hour blocks of independent study daily, a school district spokeswoman said the time gives children a break from the computer and helps them “develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.”
The schedule for Rodrigues’s second-grader in Somerville:
Meanwhile, state officials have hesitated to dictate what districts should do when it comes to pandemic-era education, even as a growing number of experts and advocates are asking the state to be more prescriptive. “The state has a responsibility to ensure a quality education for every child and I fear that so many children are not" receiving it, said Harvard’s Jennifer Davis.
Riley told the parent town hall that although the state nudges districts, local officials make key decisions, in keeping with a long commitment to local control.
In Leominster, parent Eladia Romero says her first-grade son, who is on the autism spectrum, has a full schedule Mondays through Thursdays, but no instruction on Fridays, when students are supposed to pick assignments from a “choice board” and complete them alone.
So far, Romero has been able to make it work. The Friday schedule gives her son a respite from Zoom classes, and that day an aide provided through the family’s medical coverage gives her son some one-on-one support at home.
But Romero is concerned about the district’s upcoming transition to a hybrid model. She considered sending him for in-person learning, but was told most of his home time would be focused on independent learning under the hybrid model.
If that happened, Romero said, “he’s not going to get anything out of it.”
Leominster Superintendent Paula Deacon said the plan is to maintain the current level of interactive instructional time for students in the autism program.
Some of the schools’ elementary schedules fall in a gray zone, their educational legitimacy depending on who you ask. Several, for instance, hold Zoom classes every day for three or four hours, but stop formal instruction around lunchtime.
In Chelsea, middle school students attend Zoom classes for two to three hours straight each day. The rest of the day is comprised entirely of independent work.
“These teachers are still collecting full salaries and our kids are getting half the teacher involvement; it doesn’t make sense,” said Chelsea parent Emily Veloza, whose sixth-grade daughter has struggled without enough guidance.
But teachers aren’t happy either, said Kathryn Anderson, vice president of the union in Chelsea and a middle school English teacher. Instead of teaching up to 30 students per class, class sizes are now capped at 15 to make the online discussions more meaningful. That means educators have to teach the same lessons twice to separate classes, and partially explains the reason for the shorter day for students. Often, Anderson says, teachers end up trying to lead a live class while simultaneously responding to questions from students in their independent study block.
She would prefer a full-day schedule for students, even if that meant larger class sizes.
Chelsea Superintendent Almi Abeyta said the district chose this schedule because students hated being on Zoom classes all day, often experiencing headaches, exhaustion, and stress.
“If a student is in school for six hours, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to handle six hours of Zoom teaching,” Abeyta said. “It’s not developmentally appropriate.”
Within some districts, interactive time with teachers can vary widely depending on the school and teacher. In Boston, for instance, the district’s contract with the teachers union requires live teacher instruction each time a class meets, but doesn’t dictate how long that needs to be.
While schools don’t need to adopt a cookie cutter approach to online learning, more information and scrutiny is needed to hold laggard schools accountable for insufficient instruction, said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance For Education.
The alliance plans to compile information on live instruction time in 100 Massachusetts districts, including a range of urban, suburban, and rural communities. The goal is to empower parents to ask their districts: “Why are neighboring towns able to do this, and my community is not?” Lambert said.
In Randolph, Yahaira Lopez tried her best last month to keep her kids learning despite schedules heavy on unstructured time. In addition to the math workbooks, she planned field trips for them and bought books and flash cards focused on financial literacy skills.
But she suspected other kids in wealthier schools and communities were getting far more instruction and support throughout the day than her sons. So earlier this month, she transferred her sons to a charter school in Boston, Academy of the Pacific Rim, that conducts a full schedule of Zoom classes from 8:45 a.m. to 3:35 p.m., with just a 30-minute break for lunch.
“It’s like night and day,” Lopez said. “Even the boys are like, ‘Mom, this is just so different,’ and they appreciate it.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.