Commissioner Edelblut: How N.H. Schools Could Potentially Reopen In The Fall | New Hampshire Public Radio

Commissioner Edelblut: How N.H. Schools Could Potentially Reopen In The Fall

May 15, 2020

Credit Johannes Thiel via Flickr cc

The New Hampshire Department of Education has created a task force to determine how public schools should resume this fall.

The School Transition Reopening and Redesign Taskforce will look at lessons from remote learning and at different approaches schools could take next year as the pandemic continues.

It will issue recommendations to Gov. Chris Sununu and the DOE by the end of June. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and NHPR's education reporter Sarah Gibson about the task force's plans.

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

Rick Ganley: I know you've laid out a few different scenarios for what school could look like in the fall. Can you briefly explain what those scenarios might be?

Frank Edelblut: Sure, I'm happy to do that. And I mean, in anything that we do as we push forward, we have to keep in mind that student and staff safety is going to be preeminent in our decision making. And we will rely on a lot of information from Health and Human Services to make sure that whatever we do is in line with what their recommendations might be. But the problem that we're doing here is we've got a task force that's trying to solve a problem, but we don't know what we're actually solving.

We could get to September and find that we have full access to our buildings and we're able to bring students back and continue with our instructional model. It could also be that in September, we find ourselves in a circumstance where we're going to have limited access to our buildings. So maybe we can get into the buildings, but in smaller cohort sizes -- so not all of our students all at the same time in those facilities. And then we may find ourselves in September that we don't have access to our buildings still. And as well, even if we come back in September with full access, we don't know what necessarily will transpire in October or November if there's a surge relative to this. And so what we're trying to do is really plan for all possible scenarios. Any one of those three things.

What has your experience with remote education been like? NHPR wants to hear from students, parents and teachers - fill out our survey here.

Rick Ganley: Yeah. So there's obviously many factors to consider here when kids are in a building together. I mean, there's physical education. There's the cafeteria scenario, all kinds of situations.

Frank Edelblut: There are children.

Rick Ganley: Yeah. But I mean you're trying to plan for something, but what you're saying is it's possible that we could start the year with one model, but it could change throughout the year.

Frank Edelblut: Exactly. And so what we're trying to do is find a way to be as flexible as possible. So if we start on a certain path, that we have the agility and the nimbleness to be able to pivot and change again. Now, bear in mind we did a really good job in this initial pivot, but we kind of did that in crisis mode. What we want to do this second time is, if we have to pivot, I call it pivot version 2.0. We want to be deliberate about it and know what it looks like. And we do it on our timetable as much as possible.

Rick Ganley: Yeah, and if and when schools do open, will parents who don't feel comfortable sending their students back be allowed to continue their education at home?

Frank Edelblut: Well, so this is another scenario that we want to consider. Because [DHHS] might decide that they think we can have access to those buildings, but we don't know everybody's personal circumstances. If a child lives in a home with someone who's immunocompromised, we want to be sensitive to that and make sure that we can still allow them to access their education, even if their particular circumstances don't allow them to engage the instructional practice in that building. So that would be a scenario that we want to plan for.

Rick Ganley: So you want school systems possibly to allow students to remote learn next year if they want to?

Frank Edelblut: We want to have some flexibility in the system to accommodate all of our learners, if possible.

Rick Ganley: What has the department learned through this experience that could, you think, reshape public education beyond this pandemic?

Frank Edelblut: Well, I mean, a lot of the things that we have learned are things that we've known early on. As we pivoted to remote instruction, what we discovered is that remote instruction and support worked for some students, and it didn't work for other students. You know, there were some students who were really thriving in our traditional instructional model and they were successful in that model. And so when they pivoted, what we've discovered is some of those students have a little bit more trouble on the remote instruction model. Other students, on the other hand, who maybe were less successful in the traditional instructional model, have succeeded in remote instruction.

And so what we recognize is that students are different. They learn differently. And so can we actually develop a system that meets the needs of all of our students? I think another aspect that we've really focused on is how do we support our students that have individual education plans? So some of our special education students. We want to make sure that they, too, have the ability to access their education. And sometimes that requires some real creativity in terms of the types of supports that we're providing to them.

Rick Ganley: And that support is so vital, isn't it commissioner? I mean, you've got many situations where you have two working parents. They need to work. You may have a situation, obviously, with single parent households or kids who maybe aren't with their parents full time. I mean, there's so many different scenarios here. How do you craft any set of guidelines that can fit all these different situations?

Frank Edelblut: Well, so this is the challenge that we have before us as a task force. And we have assembled a really broad group of folks with close to 60 people on this task force and the work groups that are working on this as well. We are going to be reaching out to the community through surveys to get input from all of these different constituencies and bring that information back, look at it, and try and craft a system that can support everyone.

Rick Ganley: There's a lot of parents concerned that their kids are losing ground during remote learning. What can they expect in terms of figuring out where students have fallen behind and, you know, getting the support for them to catch up in the fall if we can get back to some sort of normalcy?

Frank Edelblut: Yeah. So we are actually implementing a combination of, I call it, kind of top down and bottom up work. But it really revolves around professional development for educators to help them really understand what formative assessment can look like for a student who has been operating in remote instruction and may have kind of uneven gaps in their learning, right? There are some places where they may have been okay and they've made good progress, and there's other places where there's gaps.

So it's not like they're gonna have wide gaps as much as maybe pockets of gaps as the thought process. So we're developing some training materials for educators to work on that. And then we're also working with the districts to do some assessments of students when they come back to us in September so we can understand where those gaps might be and how we can intervene for them.

Rick Ganley: Well, I know last time we talked, we talked about data and gathering data -- how you get that data. Do you have the data that you need right now to make decisions about the future? I mean, we've heard anecdotes, of course, but do we have the hard numbers we need to really make these decisions by the end of June, as you hope to do?

Frank Edelblut: Well, so the data that we do have is what we're gonna gather through this task force. But the real data that we need probably is the information about student performance. And we're not going to see that data till September when the students are in the buildings and we're able to actually go through some assessment and see where we end up. I think today, still, our focus is on the instruction that we're giving to the students to try and make sure that we close out this year as well as we can.

NHPR's education reporter Sarah Gibson listened in to hear Commissioner Edelblut's responses:

Rick Ganley: Sarah, the commissioner there said that, you know, remote learning is going well for some students, not so well for others. What are you hearing?

Sarah Gibson: Well, I would agree that it's a mixed bag. There are certainly stories of success and some kind of surprising ones. I wouldn't say it's the majority, but there are a couple of students, and teachers and parents I've spoken to who've said that the kind of ability to determine one's own schedule, to maybe wake up an hour later and then have a lot of power over, you know, what subject you start in the day, that that has actually been kind of empowering process for some students who weren't doing that well in school. And then there are, as the commissioner raised, real concerns about how special needs and special education students are doing remotely. However, I have heard a couple stories of students who had, as part of their learning disability, very, very intense anxiety, and that, in fact, being at home in a calmer environment with fewer kind of unknown factors has allowed them to focus on their studies more.

However, I think, you know, there's some concern that there is overstating of success and that without those numbers, without some sense, really, of how kids are doing come fall, we don't quite know whether or not it's fair to say remote learning worked for a bunch of families and for a bunch of students. And we should therefore kind of embed some of what we had in the remote learning time into the structure of school far into the future.

So I think there's some major questions of just how do we capture the data as you were asking, too, of how remote learning actually went for families and students so that we can make decisions about how to get kids caught up and also what kind of opportunities to offer kids who may have done really well during remote learning.

Rick Ganley: And we do have to consider that there's a significant portion of the state that doesn't have reliable broadband access or reliable access to, you know, a good Internet connection for remote learning. So there's so many questions there. Based on your reporting, Sarah, what are some of the changes that families can expect in schools because of the pandemic? Are some aspects of this remote learning going to become the new normal, you think?

Sarah Gibson: Well, I think that's one of the big questions that many educators are asking, but also that the working group and the task force that have just started meeting that they're working through as well. I mean, certainly we heard in the task force [meeting] yesterday from a number of people that remote learning has been a big lift. It doesn't feel that sustainable, I'm sure, to a lot of families who are listening in, as well as to some teachers who are really logging in like fifteen hour days just to get this done. However, it is an opportunity for reflection and for some innovation. And I think that sense is shared by many teachers as well as the Department of Education.

But, you know, Commissioner Edelblut has been pushing for pretty big changes to the public school system for a while. You know, he's pushed for charter school expansion, for more school choice and opportunities to get high schoolers credit for activities they do outside of school. All of those initiatives have met with serious resistance, largely from Democrats in the legislature, and to some extent from teachers unions and education admin.

And so there's been these kind of battles that we've seen in the statehouse over the future of education for a while. And so there is a sense that maybe, you know, remote learning ends up being this opportunity for some of the big changes. And some of them might be needed, but some of them might become permanent in a way that makes educators and administrators nervous. You know, there's certainly a sense that there needs to be more flexibility in the existing system. And you know, what that flexibility looks like is really one of the major questions that the task force will be asking in the coming months.

Rick Ganley: So do you think there'll be a little less political resistance to some of these ideas and more of a patchwork look to public education in the future?

Sarah Gibson: Well, I think inherently, you know, just based on the conversations that we're hearing both about just what this pandemic could look like in the fall, as well as, you know, families' individual sense of safety sending kids back, there might just have to be a patchwork. So in some ways, this becomes potentially less of a partisan battle and more one that has to be based on the numbers. If it's just not safe to bring kids back in September, or if there's a surge in October or November, that's going to mean that schools are closed. That's going to mean that there's some kind of flexibility baked into the system.

So that may be just small cohorts go in to the school building, should DHHS say that there's enough safety guidelines for that to happen. So, you know, the emphasis has been based on numbers and based on, you know, whether or not it's truly safe for students, and families and for teachers. So it could be, you know Rick, people have been talking about testing. So it could be that a lot of higher risk teachers have to get tested regularly if they're asked to go into a school building. What happens if a bunch of them test positive? Does that school shut down and therefore they go into remote learning immediately?

So, yeah, a patchwork, I think, is something that families can expect to some extent. And the question again is, is that patchwork going to become part of really the fabric of New Hampshire's public education system for years to come, even after the pandemic subsides.

Rick Ganley: Sarah, the commissioner there said that, you know, remote learning is going well for some students, not so well for others. What are you hearing?

Sarah Gibson: Well, I would agree that it's a mixed bag. There are certainly stories of success and some kind of surprising ones. I wouldn't say it's the majority, but there are a couple of students, and teachers and parents I've spoken to who've said that the kind of ability to determine one's own schedule, to maybe wake up an hour later and then have a lot of power over, you know, what subject you start in the day, that that has actually been kind of empowering process for some students who weren't doing that well in school. And then there are, as the commissioner raised, real concerns about how special needs and special education students are doing remotely. However, I have heard a couple stories of students who had, as part of their learning disability, very, very intense anxiety, and that, in fact, being at home in a calmer environment with fewer kind of unknown factors has allowed them to focus on their studies more.

However, I think, you know, there's some concern that there is overstating of success and that without those numbers, without some sense, really, of how kids are doing come fall, we don't quite know whether or not it's fair to say remote learning worked for a bunch of families and for a bunch of students. And we should therefore kind of embed some of what we had in the remote learning time into the structure of school far into the future.

So I think there's some major questions of just how do we capture the data as you were asking, too, of how remote learning actually went for families and students so that we can make decisions about how to get kids caught up and also what kind of opportunities to offer kids who may have done really well during remote learning.

Rick Ganley: And we do have to consider that there's a significant portion of the state that doesn't have reliable broadband access or reliable access to, you know, a good Internet connection for remote learning. So there's so many questions there. Based on your reporting, Sarah, what are some of the changes that families can expect in schools because of the pandemic? Are some aspects of this remote learning going to become the new normal, you think?

Sarah Gibson: Well, I think that's one of the big questions that many educators are asking, but also that the working group and the task force that have just started meeting that they're working through as well. I mean, certainly we heard in the task force [meeting] yesterday from a number of people that remote learning has been a big lift. It doesn't feel that sustainable, I'm sure, to a lot of families who are listening in, as well as to some teachers who are really logging in like fifteen hour days just to get this done. However, it is an opportunity for reflection and for some innovation. And I think that sense is shared by many teachers as well as the Department of Education.

But, you know, Commissioner Edelblut has been pushing for pretty big changes to the public school system for a while. You know, he's pushed for charter school expansion, for more school choice and opportunities to get high schoolers credit for activities they do outside of school. All of those initiatives have met with serious resistance, largely from Democrats in the legislature, and to some extent from teachers unions and education admin.

And so there's been these kind of battles that we've seen in the statehouse over the future of education for a while. And so there is a sense that maybe, you know, remote learning ends up being this opportunity for some of the big changes. And some of them might be needed, but some of them might become permanent in a way that makes educators and administrators nervous. You know, there's certainly a sense that there needs to be more flexibility in the existing system. And you know, what that flexibility looks like is really one of the major questions that the task force will be asking in the coming months.

Rick Ganley: So do you think there'll be a little less political resistance to some of these ideas and more of a patchwork look to public education in the future?

Sarah Gibson: Well, I think inherently, you know, just based on the conversations that we're hearing both about just what this pandemic could look like in the fall, as well as, you know, families' individual sense of safety sending kids back, there might just have to be a patchwork. So in some ways, this becomes potentially less of a partisan battle and more one that has to be based on the numbers. If it's just not safe to bring kids back in September, or if there's a surge in October or November, that's going to mean that schools are closed. That's going to mean that there's some kind of flexibility baked into the system.

So that may be just small cohorts go in to the school building, should DHHS say that there's enough safety guidelines for that to happen. So, you know, the emphasis has been based on numbers and based on, you know, whether or not it's truly safe for students, and families and for teachers. So it could be, you know Rick, people have been talking about testing. So it could be that a lot of higher risk teachers have to get tested regularly if they're asked to go into a school building. What happens if a bunch of them test positive? Does that school shut down and therefore they go into remote learning immediately?

So, yeah, a patchwork, I think, is something that families can expect to some extent. And the question again is, is that patchwork going to become part of really the fabric of New Hampshire's public education system for years to come, even after the pandemic subsides.