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As N.H. Schools Close For The Year, Edelblut Outlines Remote Learning Efforts and Impacts

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Gov. Chris Sununu has ordered remote learning at New Hampshire schools to be extended through the end of the academic year. That means all public schools, and private schools, will remain closed, as students continue their studies from home.

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut about what this means for students, parents, and educators across the state.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Rick Ganley: We've heard plenty from parents and teachers, here at NHPR. They're saying that the learn-from-home experience has been, you know, uneven depending on the school district and student to student, family to family. How is your department tracking what's working and what's not? What specific data are you collecting?

Frank Edelblut: Yes, so most of the data that's being collected right now is data that's being collected at the school level. And as you described it, so some of the implementation is better than others. And I think that's as we would have expected it. This was a fairly significant pivot that was made. And so what I like to kind of keep in focus is that we continue to have very high aspirations for all of our children. It's no different today than it was before the pandemic to continue to embrace those high aspirations for our students. But then recognizing that we are, in some respects, the analogy that I use is we're building the plane as we fly it as we continue to launch into our remote instruction and remote support for all of our students. So we just continue to try and ratchet up and continue to move and improve the opportunities for all of our kids across the state.

So, like you, I hear from parents every single day. I get to have a lot of conversations with parents, and teachers and school leaders. And I hear that in some circumstances it's a really rewarding situation. Some students are thriving in that environment. All the sudden, it's a different world for them. They have a little bit more autonomy and self-agency that they get to exercise around their educational experience and that fits very well for them. But other students who are much more accustomed to the more structured approach of the classroom instruction are trying to find their legs in this environment.

Rick Ganley: Absolutely. It's going to be, you know, very student dependent. And as you said, some kids might thrive on this. But other kids, obviously, this is, as you said, a major shift. What specific data are you looking for or collecting when you're trying to determine what's working and what isn't?

Frank Edelblut: Yep. So, I mean, it's really right now the anecdotal feedback that we hear from the system. So we are in regular contact with our school leaders. We're in regular contact with a lot of educators across the state and getting that back. In terms of specific data that's feeding in, that information is still being fed back into the school system and is not coming directly back to the department at this point in time. That will happen as we kind of move through this process.

Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR
N.H. schools are closed for the rest of the academic school year due to coronavirus.

We will be rolling out an optional assessment in May for both educators as well as families to be able to take. And it will be an open assessment that's just an open URL. So that families and teachers can use that as a tool for our kids to engage in some math and some English assessment work to see and get immediate feedback in terms of, gee, how is how are things going? Have we created some gaps in our learning? Do we not have gaps? But most of the data collection will really be around the work that we do when we come back in the fall.

Today, we're focused on the instruction, trying to be as effective as we can, trying to make sure that every student is engaged in the process, trying to make sure that every student's needs are met as we try to make sure that they are engaging this new learning platform that they have. And then when we get to the fall, I think is when we'll see more specific assessments in content areas to understand if we've created any educational or instructional gaps for students and then build the plans to be able to fill those in.

Rick Ganley: Yeah, so there's a lag, obviously, between data collection and what you can do with it specifically. The governor is encouraging districts to be flexible in their grading system, including using a pass-fail model where it's appropriate. Some districts have recently adopted that approach. What's the department telling districts about that?

Frank Edelblut: So again, it is a local decision whether or not someone's going to go to pass/fail or they're going to continue with their grading system. But what we have done as a department is really tried to get ahead of that system to make sure that it doesn't result in downstream problems for those students. So, for example, early on we reached out to the University System of New Hampshire and said, hey, what is a pass/fail going to look like if a student is being either admitted to college or being evaluated relative to scholarships? We want to make sure that we don't create a penalty for the students because of the circumstances that they found themselves in and because they're pass/fail.

Rick Ganley: What are you hearing from those colleges and universities? Are they willing to accept that?

Frank Edelblut:  So absolutely, what they basically at the university system, they said it's not going to be a penalty. We can work through this. We're not going to penalize anybody on scholarships. We've also reached out to broader New England post-secondary environment. And they are working with all of their member institutions to make sure that students don't get penalized.

And then further, we reached out to NCAA because as you know, grades are important components for college sports and eligibility, various criteria that they have. And typically, the NCAA policy is that if a student is in a pass/fail environment and they get a pass, that means NCAA for eligibility determination basically gives them the lowest possible passing grade in an A through F type of a system. So you may have a student who gets a pass and the NCAA assigns them a D-minus for that. And that may affect their eligibility. We have reached out to them to make sure that they don't also penalize students who might have high aspirations for some post-secondary sporting participation.

And so just trying to think through as the local districts are trying to make these decisions, that we help to support them by getting all the information that would potentially cause implications for their students and so that they can make a well-informed decisions for their communities.

Rick Ganley: How will new federal aid be distributed, commissioner? When will schools see that money?

Frank Edelblut: Yeah. So the new federal aid under the CARE Act at this point in time is about $37 million. That funding is going to be very flexible in terms of how it is going to be able to be deployed by the schools. And it really is the schools that are making the decisions about how that will be deployed. Ours will be a pass-through function.

So we will receive the funding. We get a formula from the federal government in terms of how we distribute that money to the schools based on a combination of population and poverty in a community. We will push that funding out and then set that up in our grant management system, which is a system that all of our schools are familiar with using so that they can readily access it under the CARE Act. Basically, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Education 30 days to come up with some rules around how that funding will be used, as well as the possibility of some additional waivers that they might be able to access. We expect to get those rules no later than April 26. I can tell you that we are working ahead of schedule so that once we receive that funding at the SEA level, which is the state education agency level, we have a few things that we're responsible to do with that. But we will pass that through as quickly as possible.

We've already, as an example, prepared our documentation and forwarded that over for the [Governor's Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery] to begin looking at so that we can be ahead of the curve. But our goal is to turn that funding around to the districts as quickly as possible. We've also been working with our district really since this began. We've probably started back on March 16 or 17, encouraging schools to be collecting information, collecting data around the extraordinary costs that they may have incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So that when they get access to this funding, they, too, would be able to turn around those reimbursements very quickly to themselves. Under the CARE Act, we can apply this additional funding retroactively to COVID-19 expenses back to March 13th. So my expectation is that schools who have been collecting this data over time already will have a list of where they want to fill those gaps in, and they will be able to really deploy the funding almost immediately.

Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
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