Dear Legal Mailbag:
As we wind down the 2020-2021 school year, my teachers and I are looking forward to getting all of our students back in person at our little elementary school next year. I was surprised to learn, however, that this sentiment is not universally shared.
Yesterday, one of the parents who has elected the remote learning option this year called me to ask about the arrangements that we are making for remote learning for her children next year. I asked her why she would be interested in remote learning next year when, God willing, the pandemic will be behind us. She then went on at some length about how well remote learning had worked for her family. She explained that her son loved the flexibility of remote learning, and that he was happy not to have get dressed or to deal with the other students, who used to tease him. Besides, she added with a chuckle, with her children at home, the older brother had been able to keep an eye on his infant sister while she, the mother, was out working.
I did my best to be polite, but I had to tell her that we would not be offering any remote learning options next year, and that she had better get her act together and arrange for child care for her infant daughter. Besides, I told her, remote learning is inherently inferior to in-person instruction, and her son will definitely be better off coming back to school. She did not like that answer one bit. She got snippy, said “we will see about that,” and hung up on me abruptly.
Am I on solid ground here?
No reasonable person can claim that remote learning is as effective as in-person instruction. The question remains, however, whether and under what circumstances remote learning will be offered next year. Happily for the Connecticut school children who need to be back in school, the State Department of Education has just provided guidance on this issue.
Two days ago, the Department issued its Interim Guidance for Remote Learning 2021-2022 School Year (April 27, 2021). It has announced that, under current health conditions, there is no expectation that the State Department of Education or the Department of Public Health will require that Connecticut school districts provide a remote learning option next year. This welcome guidance notes that school districts should take advantage of the opportunities offered by the technology that emerged during the pandemic, but it emphasizes the significant advantages of in-person instruction:
Nonetheless, it remains broadly accepted that in-person access to school is the best long-term approach for most students to be educated, have equitable and effective access to educational opportunities, find necessary supports from adults and proper nutrition, as well as to engage in age-appropriate and necessary social and emotional growth. Therefore, additional guidance will be forthcoming to address the necessary balance, and it will be informed by the outcome of the legislative session.
Some of the options mentioned in the interim guidance are the potential use of technology:
- to expand opportunities to take courses in specialized subjects,
- to implement new teaching strategies,
- to strengthen “equity across the state by enhancing enrichment options and leveraging deliberate virtual access for students in concert with in-person learning,”
- to accommodate the potential need for classroom quarantine, and
- to provide remote learning on a short-term basis to avoid disruptions in learning caused by inclement weather or facilities issues (e.g., power outages).
The interim guidance includes two other important points. First, districts have long been responsible for accommodating the special needs of students who for health reasons are unable to attend school, and this obligation remains unchanged. Second, under current law (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-221a(g)(6)), boards of education may already adopt policies to permit the granting of credit for courses that students take online, as long as specified standards are met.
Finally, Legal Mailbag notes that, given the need for districts to plan for next year, the State Department of Education issued this helpful interim guidance now. But more guidance will be coming, and the Department will be drafting standards to permit school districts to innovate and utilize the benefits of these new technologies while maintaining the quality of education. Stay tuned!