It wasn’t long after Governor Charlie Baker ordered schools across Massachusetts to close because of coronavirus that David Goldstone recognized a tale of two cities playing out in his own home.
The Newton father of three watched with growing frustration as his youngest daughter, a seventh-grader at a religious private school, quickly fell into a new routine of online learning between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Two weeks after schools closed on March 15, his daughters at Newton South High School were still awaiting word of the district’s distance learning plan.
Goldstone said he emailed all of the school and town officials he could think of. He ultimately corralled 15 other parents into launching a petition, dated March 31 and eventually signed by 905 parents, that beseeched the Newton Public Schools to put forth a plan for distance learning. Two days later, the Newton Public Schools released one after hastily negotiating an agreement with the local teachers union. It was then that Goldstone realized he arrived late. The parents had essentially been pre-empted by the union. “They’d already signed an ironclad contract that they have to honor,” he said.
The sudden shift to online learning has plunged school districts nationwide into a heated debate over how to teach students during a global pandemic, and that’s certainly been true in this affluent suburb of Boston.
Initially frustrated that Newton was taking too long to pivot, parents later criticized what they say is a dearth of live instruction and lack of academic rigor in a district that has the resources to do more. “Today my daughter said at noon, ‘I’m done for the day,’” Goldstone lamented. “It’s a joke. It’s a complete and utter joke.”
Across Massachusetts, student participation in distance learning has varied wildly, with 95 percent participation in towns like Andover and 30 percent in Chelsea, the Boston Globe reported in April. Unlike Rhode Island, where officials mandated a type of “business as usual” approach, Massachusetts gave 400 local school districts significant latitude and at least initially recommended that they hold back from introducing new material. “This is really crisis distance learning,” said Newton Public Schools Superintendent David Fleishman, speaking at a June 8 School Committee meeting.
Goldstone, who said his parents were both public school teachers, said he believes Newton is trying to do right by its students. “But if Newton can’t do this, then what hope does Chelsea have?” he asked. “How can anybody do this if Newton can’t?”
Just west of Boston, Newton is a leafy enclave that was one of the region’s first commuter towns. Its population of 89,000 is overwhelmingly white and upper middle class, with a median family income of $154,787. Its 22 schools serve 13,000 students with a budget of more than $250 million and have a reputation for being among the best in the state.
School Committee members say that soon after Governor Baker’s shut-down directive, they raced to strike a contract with teachers that allowed teaching to resume at all. “The conditions under which we employ teachers are spelled out in the contract,” said one member, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the situation. “Anything we ask them to do, we have to negotiate it.” By contrast, the city of Boston only reached an agreement with its teachers on April 21.
But sources familiar with the process said the full School Committee, which ordinarily would have discussed the agreement at a public meeting, was presented the agreement as a fait accompli. The head of the School Committee, Ruth Goldman, did not respond to questions from Education Next about how the contract was negotiated, nor did the Newton Teachers Association, which has 1,200 members.
To a cohort of parents, including Goldstone, the agreed-upon plan fell far short of expectations.
Teachers are receiving their full salary while school is closed, yet they are not to be “evaluated or disciplined with respect to the quality of work” during the closure, the contract states. Under the April 2 distance learning plan, high schoolers had 3.5 hours of work daily, including 20 minutes of live instruction per class each week. (The amount was increased to 30 minutes per class per week in mid-May.)
As for the curriculum, officials avoided new material not just because they wanted to prioritize students’ social and emotional health. They were also concerned that students without access to computers or internet connectivity would be left behind. In fact, the equity concern prompted Newton Public Schools to distribute more than 1,000 devices to students in the days before distance learning resumed. Teachers with younger students, and those with special needs, faced an additional challenge of engaging students remotely. Rebecca Brogadir, principal of Ward Elementary School, said establishing routine is something that takes weeks under the best of circumstances. “We didn’t have the gift of time together to do that,” Brogadir said at the June 8 School Committee meeting.
Kathy Shields, a School Committee member and Newton Public Schools parent, said she sees both sides. “If I had a high schooler spending two hours a day doing school, I’d be really frustrated, too,” she said. “I just think that it’s really hard to completely redesign a system of education all of a sudden and make it work really well.”
Any parent of schoolchildren who were yanked from their classrooms and thrust into distance learning will tell you that online schooling is hard, even in the best circumstances.
Newton Superintendent Fleishman declined an interview for this story, but in an email said the purpose of distance learning was to engage students and keep them connected to each other and to their teachers; a key goal in devising the curriculum was to address the needs of all learners “while also recognizing limits on the content we will be able to cover in this environment.”
That didn’t sit well with parents like Goldstone who said, “It’s Orwellian to say this is a remote learning plan and the goal of the remote learning plan is not learning.” He said he’s not suggesting that distance learning is a walk in the park, just that he expected more. “We’ve bought houses in Newton and paid that premium to be in a good school district,” he said.
In mid-April, a group of parents penned a letter to the editor of the Newton Tab, criticizing the district’s minimal learning time and lack of graded assignments. “Online classes are offered by many other schools (including NYC), universities, and even by churches, synagogues, and yoga and dance studios,” they said. “If they can, so can NPS.”
But Matt Hills, a former School Committee member, said comparing Newton Public Schools to private schools, or even other districts, is an error. “It’s one thing to feel your own district is not doing as well as you want,” he said. “It’s another thing to incorrectly set your expectations for what remote learning is by listing a bunch of districts and private schools that you say are doing great — at least some of which I know are struggling or doing even worse.”
In May, based on feedback from parents and teachers, Newton Public Schools updated its plan to include some new material and up to 30 minutes a week of live instruction per subject for high school students. “We know that families continue to experience this pandemic very differently and we seek to respect those differences,” Fleishman wrote in a letter to parents.
But by then, parent fatigue was starting to set in. In late May, one Newton parent posted in a Facebook group that she was “dreading” opening the kindergarten learning plan. “Each Sunday I spend easily an hour reading the instructions, clicking on links, preparing for kindergarten homeschool,” she wrote. The post generated 108 comments, many echoing the original poster. However, one parent reminded the others that they were “in the midst of the worst pandemic in our history.” “You children will be ok,” she added. “They will learn to read, they will catch up.”
In late May, new studies showed that students may fall significantly behind because of so much lost classroom time. One study, by McKinsey & Co., found the average student could fall seven months behind academically.
After the June 8 School Committee meeting, at which principals and teachers reflected on lessons learned, Committee Member Shields said it was clear Newton schools would need to introduce “a lot more new material,” whether synchronous or asynchronous.
Goldstone said he’s not entirely confident Newton Public Schools can pull that off for the fall, and is considering other options for his children.
Correction: An earlier version of this article and subheadline misstated the total amount of live instruction time.
E. B. Solomont is a Boston-based writer.
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Last updated June 24, 2020