Amid COVID cases, Department of Education urges schools to avoid remote learning

By: - October 1, 2021 5:53 am
Exterior of the state Department of Education

The New Hampshire School Administrators Association calls on Gov. Chris Sununu “to denounce the bounties placed on public school educators by an extremist group.” (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

In Manchester, officials chose drastic action. COVID-19 clusters prompted the district to send two elementary schools into remote learning Tuesday “out of an abundance of caution,” the district announced.  

In Mascoma Valley Regional School District in Enfield, meanwhile, school officials have held off. Facing a swell of positive coronavirus cases this past week, ranging from three one day to 11 the next, the district has so far kept all classes running.

“At this time, the Mascoma Valley Regional School District remains open and operating on a normal schedule,” Superintendent Amanda Isabelle wrote in a letter to parents Wednesday

Schools across the state are facing COVID-19 cases among both teachers and students – and wrestling with what to do about it. But when considering whether to move classrooms to temporary remote learning, districts are bumping against Department of Education recommendations. 

In an email sent to all superintendents earlier in September – and in calls to district superintendents themselves – Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut has discouraged schools from initiating mandatory remote learning, instead advising that they offer it as a voluntary option for parents.

That guidance has caused some confusion for districts experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, according to school representatives. Under current state administrative rules, schools are allowed to enter into mandatory remote learning. But the Department of Education’s communications are causing some to pause, school representatives say. 

“The commissioner has made it pretty clear that he does not want districts to exercise their authority under the current rule,” said Carl Ladd, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. 

Edelblut has objected to that characterization. The email and the individual calls to districts are meant to be informational and the guidelines should be interpreted as advice, not a mandate, he said in interviews this week. 

“It was represented that this is what we’re trying to do, and so this is what we’re trying to live to the spirit of where the State Board of Education is going, and I was very clear about that,” he said. 

On Wednesday, a day after Manchester implemented its targeted remote learning, Edelblut called Manchester Superintendent John Goldhardt to reiterate the department’s advice: Manchester should not require students to enter into remote learning, even if cases in classrooms emerge. 

“I’ve spoken with John Goldhardt and he understands kind of the framework in which he needs to be operating,” Edelblut said in an interview Wednesday. “… The school has the option to offer a family (remote learning) if they want to, but that is not to the exclusion of offering families who want in-person instruction (as an) option.”

“… Basically this is a reiteration of the rule proposal that was put in by the State Board of Education on the ninth (of September) at the board meeting,” Edelblut added. 

A spokesperson for the Manchester School District, Andrew Toland, declined to comment on the conversation between Goldhardt and Edelblut. But the district did issue a broader statement Tuesday about its decision. 

“It should go without saying that it’s our strong preference to have all students learning in person,” Goldhardt said in the statement. “However, in moving the affected groups to remote status, we are making our best effort to ensure we keep as many students in person as possible.”

At the heart of the confusion is a proposed administrative rule change. While remote learning is available to schools now, the State Board of Education is considering a rule that would prohibit schools from entering mandatory remote learning, except in cases of inclement weather. 

That rule, a proposal of the Department of Education, has only been introduced at this stage, Board Chairman Drew Cline said in a Sept. 24 interview. It has not yet received a hearing and has not yet been voted on by the board – nor approved by the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, all of which will not happen until December at the earliest. 

But an email sent by the commissioner to all New Hampshire superintendents earlier in September referred to the proposed rule as recommended policy. 

“With the cessation of the state of emergency, and to be compliant with the State Board of Education’s recently advanced remote instruction rules, all schools must offer in-person instruction, 5-days per week,” Edelblut wrote in the email. “This offer of in-person instruction extends to all families that want that option and the newly advanced rule provides no flexibility in that requirement.”

Later in the email, Edelblut referred to the advice as voluntary. “If you have further questions about this guidance, please do not hesitate to call,” Edelblut adds. 

But the inclusion of the word “must” has caused some districts to interpret the policy as an implied directive, Ladd said. 

“Essentially what’s happening is the commissioner is trying to enforce rules that have not been put in place yet,” Ladd said. 

Edelblut said the department is not trying to enforce the proposed rules, but to alert districts that they will likely be enacted. But the department does believe that the proposed rule – even if not in place now – should be followed by districts, he added. 

“We know exactly what rules are in place and what rules we’re trying to live with, and so even my written communication is that we’re basically trying to comport to what the spirit of what it is that the State Board of Education is after here,” he said. 

The conflict between the current rules and the department’s preferred guidelines is the result of an unfortunate timeline, Edelblut said Friday. When the pandemic began in March 2020, the Department of Education submitted a rules proposal to allow school districts to choose how and when to enter into remote learning. That proposed administrative rule was put on hold after Gov. Chris Sununu declared a state of emergency and used an executive order to give districts the same powers. 

But when Sununu ended the state of emergency in May 2021, the department and the State Board of Education chose to pass the rule they had held back. That decision was made reluctantly, Edelblut said. One year into the pandemic, the department no longer thought the rule should be as wide-ranging as they did in 2020. 

Yet because there were no other rules that could be implemented quickly, the department and board decided to advance the 2020 rule as a stop-gap measure, Edelblut said. Immediately after doing so, in September, the department advanced the current proposed rule to pare back school districts’ ability to enter remote learning. 

The result: The Department of Education is pushing school districts to follow the proposed rule as it waits for approval, even though the rule now in place says otherwise.

“I just talk to my superintendents and we say, ‘Hey, let’s work towards the spirit of what we’re after,” he said. “We all know what’s best for children, and we can work towards that.”

Some school representatives disagree, however, that the proposed rule –  to limit district remote learning options to weather events and individual parental requests – is the approach worth working toward. Ladd and some districts have said they will be pushing the board to include exceptions at its public hearing in November.

Asked Wednesday about the proposed rule, Sununu did not directly comment. But he said that mandatory remote learning by school districts could be used sparingly. 

“When we talk about remote learning: Remote learning is an opportunity, but it is not a crutch,” he said. “It fills a gap, but it’s clearly not the best way to have education for our kids. So, in the rare circumstances where classrooms, or communities. or schools, whatever, might have to go remote temporarily, it really needs to truly be temporary, if that’s what the (school) board decides to do.” 

For now, the School Administrators Association is advising districts to use the rules in place to implement remote learning – though only when deemed necessary.

“Districts have tried really hard to stay in person,” Ladd said. “And I think that everyone’s desire is to stay in person.”

On that point, Edelblut agrees. 

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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]