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The Great Divide

Following parents’ complaints of too much independent study, state mandates expanded instructional requirements

A 10-year-old student in Andover was on the floor during his Zoom class in November.
A 10-year-old student in Andover was on the floor during his Zoom class in November.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

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State education officials voted Tuesday to impose more aggressive requirements for how much teacher-led instruction Massachusetts public school students should receive during the pandemic. The move follows complaints by parents across the state that their children’s remote school days are too often filled with independent study.

The 7-4 vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education — which several members called their most important this year — followed an emotional debate about whether the policy change would help or hinder students.

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The proposal from Governor Charlie Baker’s administration came after the Globe reported in October that many parents and experts were dismayed that children, particularly young ones, had long stretches of time without teacher interaction.

“It’s ultimately inexcusable that students are not interacting with their teachers every day,” Education Secretary Jim Peyser said.

The emergency regulation requires students in fully remote programs to receive at least some live classes led by teachers every day; and it requires four hours of such classes per day, on average. For students in hybrid models, which mix both online and in-person learning, schools must provide daily interaction with teachers, and at least 3½ hours of live instruction on average — delivered either online or in-person.

The new requirements take effect Jan. 19.

Citing alarming increases nationwide of youth mental-health hospitalizations, Baker’s administration bolstered its case for the increased teacher time with concerns over students’ emotional well-being. But critics worry the move might overwhelm some students with more Zoom classes. And many of the experts who have advocated for the new requirement say the purpose is to strengthen academic instruction — not address significant mental health needs.

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State regulations already require schools to provide students at least five hours of “structured learning time” every day, on average, but independent study and prerecorded lessons can count toward that time. And the Globe’s reporting showed that districts varied widely on what constitutes structured time, with some leaving students to work on their own multiple days each week.

Only half of Massachusetts’ 40 largest districts said in their public reopening plans how much instruction time they expected students to receive during the pandemic, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

After recognizing that there was a problem, Peyser said, state officials surveyed all the nearly 400 school districts to understand the scale of the issue.

About two-thirds of school districts already meet the new standards, Peyser said. State officials would not identify the other districts since the information is still being reviewed for accuracy. While some education advocates expressed concern that districts with less live instructional time are more likely to serve low-income students and students of color, Peyser said they include a broad range of districts.

Education policy experts warn that disparities in instructional hours could widen gaps along racial and class lines, as many families with means have sought out private schools, tutoring, and enrichment activities. Black and Latino students in Massachusetts, and nationwide, are more likely to rely on remote learning this school year, partly because fewer schools in their communities have reopened and partly because of family preference.

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The state’s new standard is “an important step forward for equity,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, the state’s director at The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for disadvantaged students.

Though she had called for five hours of daily teacher interaction, Ushomirsky said four hours marked an improvement.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, teachers and superintendents said the new requirement wrongly emphasizes quantity over quality of instruction.

Many teachers in Billerica, which has a hybrid model, have developed “amazing” independent projects for students, said superintendent Tim Piwowar. Those classes would not meet the proposed requirements.

The new standards also could push districts to switch to fully remote models to provide more live instruction, Piwowar said. That would run counter to the Baker administration’s goal of increasing in-person education.

Some board members expressed skepticism about the emotional benefits of more Zoom classes, and feared the policy could push districts into less engaging teaching methods.

“The regulation itself does not, to me, address this massive mental health issue that was described,” board member Amanda Fernandez said.

Parents groups were generally supportive of the state’s new standards. Massachusetts Parents United, an advocacy group, fought for the changes by sending dozens of students’ schedules to state officials. President Keri Rodrigues praised the regulation, but said the state should have set these expectations months ago.

“It is so frustrating that at every point we are fighting to point out what should be obvious on all levels — that our kids aren’t getting close to what they deserve,” she said.

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Emily Veloza in Chelsea lauded the requirement, saying her sixth-grader would benefit from four hours instead of the two she receives now.

But her daughter, Olivia, 12, said she wished online school included more social time.

“They should make it funner, like having fun with schoolwork,” she said. “I never get to see my friends anymore.”

Chelsea Superintendent Almi Abeyta said the district’s elementary schools already meet the new standards, but she may have to increase class sizes for secondary students.

Randolph Superintendent Thea Stovell said she agreed with the state’s proposed new requirements, and already has started hiring more teachers to increase live instruction hours.

Several education groups that had called on the state to impose minimum requirements for daily teacher interaction praised the action, even as they questioned state officials’ rationale.

“At least kids are going to get a baseline academic support, which wasn’t the case necessarily for the last many, many months,” said Jennifer Davis, a senior adviser at Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab. “But to use the mental-health concerns and problems kids are facing as the purpose . . . it’s not even the right argument.”

Davis said the state should push districts to partner with mental health providers so teachers can connect students to help.

Ideally, students should receive 6½ hours of instruction per day, Davis said. But she conceded that’s not realistic given districts’ challenges. She said the state should plan for expanded summer school, tutoring, and other education opportunities, especially for low-income students, to catch them up on material they missed.

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Baker has proposed awarding $53 million in funding for such efforts.


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.