Department of Education moves to block school-wide remote learning related to COVID-19

By: - September 28, 2021 5:40 am
Backpacks hanging on hooks in a school hallway

The lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the NEA is centered around the argument that the state’s new law restricting teaching is too vaguely written to be followed. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The New Hampshire Department of Education is proposing to bar school districts from implementing remote learning due to COVID-19, a move that has drawn backlash from some districts. 

An administrative rule proposed before the State Board of Education earlier this month would require that all schools provide in-person instruction throughout the school year, except in cases of inclement weather or when a family requests remote learning on an individual basis.

The rule, introduced by the department, would not provide an exception for schools experiencing an increase in coronavirus cases.

“All students shall have access to full-year, full-day, in-person instruction as required in RSA 189:1 and RSA 189:24,” the proposed rule states. “Distance education, as defined in RSA 306.22(b), shall not satisfy the requirement for in-person instruction.”

While schools have returned to in-person learning, districts currently have the authority to switch to remote learning. A rule that took effect in July states that districts “may offer students the multiple instructional options, including traditional classroom, distance education, or hybrid instruction models” – provided that the school board votes to do so.

But the proposed rule states that distance learning would not count toward a district’s required annual learning hours unless it met a narrow pair of exceptions.

Those exceptions include “when inclement weather makes it unsafe to safely transport students to or from in-person instruction” and “as an option for a parent making a request for distance education,” the proposed rule states. 

As a result of the rule, if a district closed down school facilities due to concerns over COVID-19, it would need to make up that time at the end of the school year. 

During a snow day, in contrast, teachers and staff could send materials home to students; doing that would allow the district to avoid adding days to the end of the school year.

The proposed rule was introduced to the State Board of Education on Sept. 9; a hearing is not expected until November, with a vote by the board in December. The rule would then need to pass the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules and be re-approved by the board, putting its earliest likely implementation opportunity into early winter. 

Drew Cline, the chairman of the board, has expressed support for the change. The new rule would allow school districts to continue to offer remote learning as an option, but give parents and students the right to continue in-person learning, he argued. 

“We wanted to make sure that every kid had access to in-person instructional experience. That was the key,” he said. “Let’s fix the rules so that we actually make it functional for schools to be able to do this in limited circumstances but allow the families more say.”

Some school officials have already sounded an alarm. “I think that it’s very shortsighted,” said Carl Ladd, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. 

Ladd said Commissioner Frank Edelblut was likely responding to pressure from some parents who wanted a guarantee that remote learning would not be forced on all students in the coming school year. 

But he argued that passing a rule that did not allow districts to implement contingency COVID-19 remote learning plans was a disservice – particularly as the Delta variant continues to course through the state.

“Bus drivers are getting sick, cafeteria workers are getting sick, teachers and parents are getting sick, and you know, at a certain point, we’re not going to have the staff to keep some of these buildings open whether we want to or not,” he said in an interview Friday.

Ultimately, Ladd argued, the decision to return to remote learning during a spike of COVID-19 should be up to districts and school boards.

“There should be the discretion of the local school district to determine what’s safe for them to be open and what’s not safe for them to be open,” he said. “… If they need to stay closed for longer than 10 days, then they should get approval from the Department of Education, but up to that point districts should be able to pivot.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

To Cline, the proposed rules change is a necessary readjustment of what had been a temporary situation. While schools were allowed during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 to make their own decisions on remote learning, first under a gubernatorial executive order and later under a set of rules passed by the state board earlier this year, the arrangement was never meant to be permanent, he said.

Cline pointed to difficulties experienced by students during the remote learning of 2020 and 2021 as a reason to remove the option for school districts to enter into remote learning on their own. 

If the proposed rule passes but COVID-19 cases climb across the state, Gov. Chris Sununu could still give that power back to school districts by declaring another state of emergency, Cline said.

In the meantime, concerned parents could make the choice to request that type of learning on an individual basis, Cline said. 

“The governor always has the option of declaring a current state emergency and saying you can go fully remote,” he said. “But what we’re saying is outside of a declared state of emergency, these are the options that a school has. A school just cannot tell parents you are going to have to keep your kids home and go through this whole remote learning process.”

The issue has caught the attention of one Democratic representative, who has filed legislation that seeks to block the department’s authority over remote learning. 

Rep. Marjorie Porter of Hillsborough submitted a legislative service request this month titled “prohibiting the Department of Education from directing or limiting school instructional options, such as remote learning.” 

The idea, Porter said in an interview, is to allow districts the option to replicate the at-home learning for snow days in cases of high transmission rates.

“I know that a lot of places now, when they have a snow day, they send home a snow day box or whatever so that the kids can – they don’t have to make up that snow day,” she said, adding that a lot of resources have already been put into school districts to allow them to go remote if necessary.

“That’s all in place,” she said. “So it could be easily used if needed.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]