2021 Annual Report to BESE

2020-21 School Year: The Return to In-Person Learning

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) serves 400 school districts, more than 75,000 educators, and over 900,000 K-12 public school students. We also directly support the education of more than 20,000 adult learners.

The first several months of the 2020-21 school year saw most districts return to learning in a hybrid model, although the details of these models varied widely. As we learned more about COVID-19 mitigation and the academic and mental health challenges that remote learning posed for students, it became clear that students would benefit from a return to in-person learning. With support from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley established a time frame for all schools to return to full, in-person learning on a phased-in basis starting with elementary schools in April 2021, although families still had the option to keep their child learning remotely through the end of the school year.

The Department's 2021 Annual Report is below, with opening letters from Board Chair Katherine Craven and Commissioner Riley .

COVID-19 Response and Support for Districts and Schools

To provide districts and schools with COVID-19 operational support, we created the DESE Rapid Response Help Center, which responds during business hours and also on nights and weekends to help districts implement DESE guidance and collects weekly data on the number of positive COVID-19 cases in school buildings. We also provided updates to health and safety guidance and expanded health and safety measures, including partnering with other agencies to set up a robust COVID-19 testing program for schools. To address students' academic and social-emotional needs, we encouraged districts to prioritize in-person learning consistent with COVID-19 health and safety practices, recognizing that instructional time is an essential resource for students. We conducted reviews to identify and promote best practices and assess the quality of remote and hybrid learning models while urging that English learners and students with disabilities be served in person. In December 2020, the Board approved emergency regulations to require minimum guidelines for live instruction during remote learning, and in March, the Board voted to give the Commissioner the authority to determine when remote learning would no longer count toward student learning time requirements. All schools began offering in-person learning later in the spring. Throughout the year, DESE continued two-way communication with superintendents and other key stakeholders to address needs and determine additional areas where DESE could provide support.

Supporting Students and Families in Order to Address Opportunity Gaps

We created a grant opportunity for in-person summer Acceleration Academies, continued comprehensive stakeholder engagement for the IEP Improvement Project, posted "what-to-look-for" tools for districts to assess their progress on the four pillars of the Blueprint for English Learner Success , and helped districts communicate more effectively with all students' families by launching a Language Interpretation Services Project with 20 districts. We also provided targeted assistance, such as through Multi-Tiered System of Support Academies for districts with low-performing schools, through a partnership with Brockton following last year's district review , and in continued work with Boston on the priorities outlined in the DESE-BPS MOU . In June 2021, the Board adopted revised regulations to promote equitable access to career/vocational technical education programs.

Using Evidence-based Policies and Practices to Strengthen Teaching and Learning

Our work in this area included continuing efforts to diversify the educator workforce, improve early literacy, increase access to STEM courses, increase students' access to designated Early College opportunities, encourage the use of high-quality instructional materials and aligned professional development, and conducting action-oriented research for educational equity. Highlights included the release in fall 2020 of "Promising Recruitment, Selection, and Retention Practices for a Diverse Massachusetts Workforce , the launch of the third cohort of the InSPIRED Initiative, and the Board's approval of a pilot for alternative assessments for educator licensure. With respect to early literacy, DESE's work included the release of the Mass Literacy Guide; the start of the Growing Literacy Equity Across Massachusetts (GLEAM) program, which will award nearly $19 million in federal funds over the next four and half years; and investment in early literacy tutoring for early elementary students, primarily those living in high-needs communities.

Advancing Deeper Learning and Innovative Assessments

The Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning continued to bring deeper learning to schools across the Commonwealth, working both with specific cohorts of districts and making additional professional development opportunities available to any interested educators statewide. During the 2020-21 school year, pilot teams from each of the 21 schools in the first cohort participated in convenings with each other and in school-based meetings. Work on an innovative science assessment for grades 5 and 8 also continued, with one pilot completed and another planned. The assessment is designed to align with DESE's work to promote deeper learning and will feature in-depth, computer-based tasks that ask students to apply science knowledge and practices to simulations of scientific phenomena.

Strategic Planning

More than ever, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are focused on helping each and every student, particularly those who are experiencing opportunity gaps and unfinished learning, to receive the supports they need to be successful in future grade levels and post-graduation. Within DESE, we have reaffirmed our commitment to anti-racism, holding 24 hours of training with our partner, Overcoming Racism; developing an action plan informed by recommendations from the agency's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee; and working across offices on culturally responsive pedagogy. We continue to build out elements of a larger instructional vision for the Commonwealth that will support all students with excellent instruction.

Student Learning Time

In fall 2020, most students were learning in hybrid models in which they spent part of their time at home and part in school, others were learning remotely full-time, and a small percentage were in classrooms full-time. This period coincided with an increase in mental health challenges among students, with feelings of isolation and disconnection as contributing factors. To combat this, and to address disparities in the amount of live instruction districts were offering, the Board approved minimum requirements for live virtual instruction in remote and hybrid models in December 2020.

In January 2021, the state announced its pooled testing program as an additional tool that could help students return to in-person learning with other mitigation measures in place. On March 5, 2021, faced with very few incidents of in-school transmission, further validation of DESE's existing guidance on 3 feet of physical distancing, and improving state health metrics strengthened by the rollout of vaccines, the Board voted to give the Commissioner the authority to determine when remote learning would no longer count toward student learning time requirements. In guidance issued in the spring , the Commissioner reiterated that there is no substitute for in-person learning, especially for younger students, students with disabilities, English learners, and other high needs populations.

After the Board vote, Commissioner Riley set deadlines for each grade span to return to full in-person learning: April 5, 2021 for elementary students; April 28 for middle school students; and May 17 for high school students. Although families of students who were fully remote had the option to continue in that model through the end of the 2020-21 school year, the return of other students paved the way for full school re-openings in fall 2021.

DESE Rapid Response Help Center

The Help Center provides a central hub through which districts and schools report COVID-19 positive cases in schools and receive support from DESE.

Pooled Testing

On January 8, 2021, DESE and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services introduced a pooled testing approach in the school setting as an additional mitigation strategy, the first program of its kind nationwide and one that laid the foundation for expanded testing options during the 2021-22 school year.

Financial Support

Federal coronavirus relief funding grew with the passage of ESSER II and III, and DESE will continue to distribute this money, which is expected to total approximately $2.8 billion, through 2024.

Acceleration Roadmap

Through extensive stakeholder engagement, DESE developed the Acceleration Roadmap and provided professional learning sessions that are continuing in the 2021-22 school year.

Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning

The Department continued coaching meetings with individual school teams and regular cohort convenings, designed a three-part sequence of 90-minute trainings that makes deeper learning accessible to a broader audience of educators, and worked with BPS principals on the launch of the Boston Kaleidoscope cohort.

Innovative Science Assessment

The Department worked with districts to pilot a science assessment tied to deeper learning and released examples of demonstration tasks for grade 5 and grade 8. In the 2021-22 school year, we will continue piloting with a larger group of students.

New Literacy Resource

In November 2020, DESE released the Mass Literacy Guide for grades pre-K-3, a web-based compendium of current information, research, and resources for evidence-based early literacy. Since its launch, the Guide has received over 100,000 page views. DESE also released the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines in April 2021.

Interpretation and Translation Services

With school-family communication more important than ever, we helped districts and schools access interpretation services through a telephonic interpretation contract and provided training through the Translation Center of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Board Members (2020-21) | Education-Related Laws | Educator Data | Summary Data | Agency Information

Photos feature Medford Public Schools

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