Schools shuttered until at least May 4 due to COVID-19 pandemic

📷 Screenshot of Gov. Baker press conference with DESE Commissioner Riley on March 25, 2020.

BOSTON — Schools across the Commonwealth will remain closed until at least May 4 and the fate of the MCAS test remains up in the air, according to state officials.

Governor Charlie Baker announced late Wednesday afternoon that all public and private schools across Massachusetts will remain closed, set to re-open no sooner than May 4.

“This is not an extended school vacation. During this long-term closure, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will work with school districts to further develop educational programming students can use at home,” Baker said in a press conference. “This way schools can prepare for their students’ return in May.”

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley said guidance will be provided to local school districts on Thursday as to how to proceed through unchartered waters. He also affirmed no decisions have been made on how schools will handle the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing due to federal and state legislation governing the standardized tests. Riley said a waiver has been filed relative to the federal requirements, while Baker’s administration has filed legislation at the state level pursuant to MCAS.

Riley said if and when he is afforded the oversight to decide the fate of the MCAS in 2020, he will act sooner than later.

“You should expect that once those hurdles are cleared, I will make decisions in short order about the MCAS,” the commissioner affirmed.

Baker: Closures are not ‘vacation’ time

While students will not be in physical classrooms over the next six weeks, Baker and Riley said learning will continue and may prove to be a testing ground for new insights into educational pedagogy.

“This extended closure will allow more time for teachers to ensure that all students have access to resources and instruction that is customized to their particular needs. This includes students with special needs and English-language learners,” said Baker. “Most importantly, this time period provides a runway to ensure that they can complete their coursework by the end of the school year in June.”

Riley agreed, noting those students with greater needs are a primary consideration in best practices during the school closures.

“Our focus as an educational community during this challenging time is on the needs of our students, especially our most vulnerable students,” he said.

Riley noted there are nearly 1,200 sites in operation across Massachusetts that are providing students with meals during school closures.

Providing those meals, coupled with educational and familial stability and routines, are primary concerns for officials, the commissioner noted.

“We recognize this is a traumatic time for our kids and we want to get them settled and then we want to get them into a routine,” said Riley. “We recognize districts will have the ability to kind of customize their plans for their communities, but we’re going to offer some structure by which to focus on that for.”

Baker also made a preliminary announcement about a developing partnership with WGBH, the region’s PBS affiliate, to provide online educational resources for students while also altering daily programming to focus its content even more on education. That partnership along with the initiatives and efforts of DESE officials are geared toward helping bridge the educational gap created by the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know it’s been difficult to be apart from students and to come up with creative ways to teach them. We also understand how hard parents are working to keep their children engaged in the learning process,” said Baker. “Teachers, districts and parents are getting creative and doing everything they can to ensure that their kids don’t fall behind and they stay engaged.”

Project-based learning may be new focus

Baker and Riley extolled the possible benefits of project-based learning as one potential strategy during the prolonged school closures.

“This is an amazing opportunity to think about project-based learning, to think about reading a book, to think about cooking recipes and how that works, to think about starting a garden,” said Riley. “We have a real opportunity here to do different things with our children, and we’re going to try to supply the resources in addition to what the district is offering.”

He later added: ” This could be an amazing opportunity to think differently about how we educate our kids and think about real world applications.”

Baker agreed, pointing to conversations he has had with vocational school students in Massachusetts.

“I have seen how excited and how important project-based learning and applied learning can be for kids,” said the governor. “If you talk to a lot of the kids in the vocational schools, the first thing they say about what they like most about being there is the opportunity to apply what they’re learning in class directly with something that involves a trade, computer science, whatever it may be.”

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