Westford School Committee members vote for updated Distance Learning program at last meeting of the school year


Each year New England weather challenges Westford schools’ ability to fit in 180 days of state-mandated student instruction. This past year, a new “Distance Learning” (DL) pilot saved the day, preventing students from attending classes during the often sweltering last week of June. At the June 18, Westford School Committee meeting, Assistant School Superintendent Dr. Kerry Clery presented a positive DL community survey and in turn, the committee voted unanimously, with caveats, to continue the program. School Committee member Chris Sanders was absent.

“The days made up at the end of the school calendar are not of the same quality as those that could be offered with extended learning opportunities,” said Clery. “We would like to reduce those lingering days at the end of the school year that are hot and uncomfortable for students and for staff.”

School Committee member Alicia Mallon said, “The affirmative vote was voicing our support for continuing with the distance learning model...we will be learning from it this year to adjust next year while also looking into alternatives.”

School Committee members voiced concerns about consistency in DL grading across grade-levels, support for IEP students and preventing overlap with other critical assignments such as finals. School committee members Arthur Benoit and Gloria Miller both recommended future DL professional development for teachers.

“The last thing we felt was that this would be a finished product,” counseled School Superintendent Dr. Everett “Bill” Olsen.

Thanks to the DL pilot, the last day of school is Friday June 22, rather than June 27.

What is Distance Learning?

“Distance Learning refers to a process of providing students with assignments or instruction that can be done remotely in order to make up school when school is closed due to reasons such as inclement weather,” Clery said.

The Massachusetts Department of Education recognizes DL as a viable means for compensating for lost school days.

“There is a 180-day requirement that students attend school in Massachusetts. There is also a requirement at the elementary level that students spend 900 hours in learning... [for] middle school and high school it’s 990 hours,” said Olsen. “The regulations require us to build in five extra days at the end of the school year for snow days.”

Clery showed that over the last 10 years, four years had greater than five “No School Days.” Fiscal 2018, with nine such days, was the most disrupted year, prompting Olsen and Clery to propose the DL pilot. If snow day use once again surpasses five next year, DL will make up the difference.

Per state law, weather disruptions post June 1 will not impact the school calendar.

High participation

This spring Westford kindergarten through 11 grade students were instructed to complete three DL assignments outside of school hours, due once each month during April – May. Students were given two weeks to complete each assignment.

“We had about a 94 percent participation rate which was well beyond what we expected to get,” said Clery. “We were very pleased.”

She said the state recommended an 80 percent participation rate for alternative programs.

Olsen contrasted this finding with the average school day participation of 96 percent.

“I was surprised that we hit the high 90s,” agreed Benoit.

Westford Academy seniors do not have to make up snow days, so were exempt.

DL survey

Clery said 1,299 parents across grade levels and 268 educators participated in a recent survey assessing the DL pilot.

“We were very pleased with the responses we received,” she said.

“We asked if the amount of time students spent on the distance learning was appropriate,” Clery said. “We had about 78 percent feeling ‘yes’, and 16 percent saying ‘no, the quantity was not appropriate’.” About six percent didn’t know.

About 75 percent of parents thought the quality of work they saw their children undertake was appropriate. Fifteen percent disagreed. About 10 percent didn’t know.

“Overall, we have about 74 percent of people in favor [of continuing DL in future years if there are greater than five snow days]; just under 20 percent do not feel they are in favor,” Clery said.

Parents in favor inputted that at the end of June, school days are not as productive. Parents against DL often said that student’s schedules are already too full.

“That’s something we can address moving forward,” said Clery, who recommended that in the future, professional, conference and snow days themselves fall within the two-week DL assignment window.

The 268 teachers who were surveyed were even more enthusiastic about the new DL pilot. Of those surveyed, almost 99 percent were in favor of continuing the program.

“Student voice is also very important,” said Clery. “Come fall, we will meet with the students at each of the grade levels.”

Grading Consistency

School Committee member Megan Eckroth, who questioned whether DL was the best option moving forward, was concerned about reported discrepancies in whether DL assignments were completed for a grade or specifically for an absence.

“Consistency across teachers at a grade level is really important to the success of this,” said Eckroth.

“I would be hesitant to tonight commit one way or another,” said Clery. “I really don’t want pre-set rules dictating the type of assignments. I really think it needs to come from what is purposeful and meaningful.”

SPED support

Eckroth asked about how well individual education plan (IEP) students’ needs were met and if the survey results reflected this.

Clery said that special education and classroom teachers worked together to modify the distance learning activities to make sure they were developmentally appropriate for those students.

Benoit had a related recommendation. He asked that going forward, the survey tease out if there was a correlation between 17 percent of the parents saying ‘no’ to the program and concerns from IEP [and] 504 parents.

Last committee meeting

As June 18, was the final school committee meeting of the fiscal 2018 year, Olsen wished the school community a happy and safe summer. Committee meetings will restart on August 13.

By Susanna Wood