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N.H. remote learning debate continues at state level as schools weigh closures

A photo of colored pencils and school books and a computer on dining table
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
Digital Vision/New Hampshire Bulletin
New Hampshire policymakers remain divided over remote learning.

To Megan Tuttle, president of New Hampshire’s largest teachers union, the question of whether a school should return to remote learning is not a matter of preference but necessity.

“Almost no educator in the state would be eager to revert to the remote instructional model,” said Tuttle, who heads the National Education Association of New Hampshire, at a legislative hearing Tuesday. “They also overwhelmingly agree that distance education should be used sparingly in the name of health and safety for their students, so it should be reserved as a potential option.”

This week, Tuttle was fighting to keep the option to enter remote learning with local school districts. It’s a matter of local control, Tuttle argued. But not everyone in the state agrees with that definition.

“All we’re doing is empowering families to have a say,” said Drew Cline, the chairman of the State Board of Education, who argued that school districts should not have the power to send whole schools into remote learning.

The stakes around the debate are increasing. Facing high staff and student COVID-19 case counts and frustration among teachers' unions, New Hampshire school administrators are wrestling with how to keep schools open. Some in the state have conceded they can’t.

But as schools increasingly turn to temporary closures, policymakers in Concord remain divided over remote learning.

Democrats in the state Senate are attempting to solidify schools’ ability to send students into remote learning by bringing forward legislation to codify current rules.

The state’s Republican Department of Education commissioner, Frank Edelblut, as well as Cline and the State Board of Education, are moving in the opposite direction, advancing a proposal to roll back that ability and require schools to offer in-person instruction as an option during COVID-19.

On Jan. 13, the State Board of Education voted to advance a set of rules that would allow schools to carry out school-wide remote learning only in cases of extreme weather events. Under the rules, which have been promoted by Edelblut, schools could continue to provide hybrid or remote learning for students by request, but would need to provide in-person instruction for students who did not explicitly ask for remote learning.

On Jan. 18, Democratic Sen. Jay Kahn of Keene introduced Senate Bill 235, which would give local school boards the sole authority to determine distance learning policies. That bill would effectively override the state board’s rules.

Presenting the bill, Kahn argued that school districts had already invested in the technology to make remote learning work. And he said remote learning is in some cases preferable to other alternatives that schools have sought to combat teaching shortages, including the use of substitute teachers and larger instructional spaces, such as auditoriums and gyms.

“The pandemic response – we have said – is dependent on a local option based on community transmission and positivity rates. And by and large, that’s worked for our state,” he said.

But Republicans have been less open to the idea of remote learning – particularly remote learning initiated by the school districts.

“When you’re talking about the local option, who decides whether or not to have the remote (learning)?” asked Sen. Ruth Ward, a Stoddard Republican and the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. “Is that made by the student who is sick at home and would like to participate? Or is it made by the school district?”

Kahn replied that the decision would be made by the school board.

“So this goes directly opposite what the Department of Education has asked for: in-class learning for the students,” Ward said.

For Tuttle and other teachers union representatives, removing school-wide remote instruction from districts’ playbooks would negate the efforts made by teachers to make the system work. Earlier in the pandemic, Tuttle said, teachers had “turned on a dime” to deliver distance learning during the peak of uncertainty in 2020. They had returned to the classroom eagerly last year, hopeful that mass vaccinations had put remote learning days in the past. But the rapid spread of the omicron variant has scrambled that calculus, Tuttle said.

“If the health and safety of the students and staff require it, going to a temporary distance education should be an option and a decision that’s made at the local level,” she said.

Cline, meanwhile, sees a different set of pitfalls. Citing research indicating that remote learning has had severe educational impacts on students and families, he has argued that the learning technique should be presented as an opt-in decision for each family and student.

“Local boards have heard this: responses from families who have two parents who work blue-collar jobs – parents who don’t necessarily have the resources to manage a remote instruction school day,” he said

“…Based on a massive amount of data we have on the negative impacts of forced remote instruction, we crafted a rule to try to strike a balance,” he added. “What we came up with was a compromise because of the impact on families that aren’t able to manage remote instruction.”

For now, school districts are still able to enter into mandatory remote learning by using a rule passed in early 2021. The new rules have passed the State Board of Education but are still awaiting future approval by the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, a panel of House and Senate lawmakers.

And even if the rules do pass, schools would be able to close and cancel classes in the event of a health emergency, Cline noted; they would just need to tack on extra days at the end of the school year.

Still, some school board members say flexibility is important.

“The worst thing you want to say on a school board is ‘our hands are tied,’” said Jonathan Weinberg, a newly elected Concord School District school board member and a recent graduate of Concord High School.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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