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In the early days of the Covid-19 shutdown, the School Committee and the Newton Teachers Association signed a Memorandum of Agreement concerning the expectations and responsibilities of the teachers and the City. This was a tumultuous time, and it would not be right to second-guess the terms of that agreement. Truly, everyone was just trying to figure out how to live and work in this new environment.

But as we look forward to the fall–when schools will reopen under a new set of rules–I’m guessing that on-line learning will remain a significant part of the curriculum. So there will probably be a need for a follow-on MOA to guide expectations.

In that light, I thought I would highlight some of the April 1 MOA to get people’s reactions as to whether they think similar or different principles should apply for the fall. I quote from a few selected sections of the MOA:

The Association and District understand and acknowledge that the following principles apply to distance learning, remote enrichment and home-learning opportunities:

Distance learning and remote educational support are not a substitute for in school instruction or curriculum.

The primary aim of distance learning is for educators to maintain a healthy connection with students that furthers their social and emotional well-being.

Both parents and educators have varying and complicated circumstances at home, including differing access to the internet, availability of at-home supports, health and wellness of self and family, etc. The District Distance Learning Plan must remain mindful of these varying circumstances. i. Distance learning should be geared towards work that students can do independently and universally designed to provide access to all students in the class. ii. Distance learning opportunities should be designed assuming that parents can provide the same level of support they ordinarily provide for homework, no more. iii. Distance learning opportunities should require students to spend no more than half the amount of time they normally spend in school on learning.

Educators will design learning opportunities using the principles of universal design, and that address the different learning needs of students with learning disabilities, English language learners, or students with other learning challenges.

The Association and District understand and acknowledge that, because distance learning and remote educational support are not a substitute for in school instruction or curriculum, employees will not be held responsible for student achievement during the period of temporary school closure.

I include these particular sections because a very different set of principles was offered by a group of Newton parents in a petition submitted in late March. In that document, signed by 900 people, the following points were made:

We request that the Superintendent and the school principals of NPS show leadership quickly to provide all students with:

  • A structured program of teaching and assignments for the specific classes in which the students are enrolled based on the curriculum
  • Meaningful live teaching/discussion of the curriculum by their teachers, via platforms like Zoom or teleconferences
  • Structured opportunities for meaningful discussion about the materials with their teachers and their peers, via platforms like Zoom’s breakout rooms
  • Meaningful expectations for ongoing and measurable student learning with respect to the curriculum.

Obviously, it is not possible to translate the classroom experience online. NPS management must not use that as an excuse for watering down school services to the minimum expectations permitted under state law or guidelines. With proper leadership, this presents an opportunity for trying innovative approaches to education.

As I note above, my purpose here is not to revisit what might have happened this past spring. The parents’ petition suggests that a more proactive approach would have been their preference, but what’s done is done. However, their points have value for the fall as well. Will the NTA and the School Committee view their job as coping with a difficult situation or as an opportunity to engage in creative experiments that could enhance both the educational opportunities for the children and the professional development of the teachers?

Equally important, what process for public input will the School Committee use to solicit ideas from the families? While the April 1 agreement had to be signed in a hurry, there are still several weeks before the fall term starts. As the petition demonstrates, there are a lot of parents of good will who want to offer suggestions. And if individual teachers have suggestions, will their views be solicited by the School Committee, or will all discussions be filtered through the NTA?

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