Lawmakers from both parties want the state Department of Education to establish statewide standards for online learning as it’s “here to stay,” despite pushback from constituents against virtual classes.
Members of the General Assembly’s education committee voted Monday to advance proposed legislation on the issue, assuring parents and teachers remote education would not replace in-person learning.
“An observation from my district — and I think holds true across a lot of districts — is there’s an awful lot of unhappiness with distanced learning,” Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, a Newtown Republican, said during the meeting. “I’ve had many, many parents write me and say, ‘There’s no place for this crap in our schools,’ and they don’t understand the essence of the bill … which is to find [virtual learning’s] place and give guidelines for how to use it.”
Sen. Doug McCrory, a Hartford Democrat and Senate chair of the committee, said: “We know that virtual learning is here to stay. Whether we like it or not, it’s going to be a part of education as we move forward. We just want to make sure we get in front of it, and we have guidelines in place for all districts to be prepared and have it available for our children.”
McCrory added that it was important to make sure schools would not use remote learning “in place of what we know what really works for our children, which is in-person learning.”
Bolinsky said he also felt it was “so vital” to provide guidelines, “and doing it without providing them as a mandate is very important.”
The proposal, An Act Concerning Virtual Learning, would require the state Department of Education to create uniform standards for online learning by July, as well as conduct an audit of the remote learning programs being used by school districts across the state and report their findings, committee leaders said. The department would also determine what should and should not be considered an excused absence from online classes, and approve the virtual learning platforms being used by districts.
McCrory said part of the guidelines would dictate when schools should use online-only learning.
“We’re not leaving it up to individual school districts, we’re not leaving it up to individual schools,” he said. “[The state Department of Education] will set the guidelines, and we will follow accordingly,” he said.
Rep. Kathleen McCarty of Waterford, the top House Republican on the committee, said: “It certainly isn’t meant to take the place of in-person learning. But as we just came through this pandemic and we saw so many disparities in learning throughout the districts, we think that having something in place with basic and uniform standards is the way that we should be proceeding.”
While lawmakers voted to advance the bill to the appropriations committee, McCrory noted it is still a “work in progress,” and language may be added “before we move it all the way out to the floor.” Rep. Jeff Currey, an East Hartford Democrat, suggested, for example, that lawmakers add in language to make sure the audit also focuses on special education and English-learning students, two demographics who saw lower rates of attendance and engagement during the pandemic compared to Connecticut students overall.
Several other lawmakers said, like Bolinsky, they’ve heard from constituents who are concerned about remote learning. Rep. John-Michael Parker, a Democrat who represents Durham and Madison, said he has received messages from local educators and administrators on the issue and wants to be “very clear” that he and other committee members do not intend to make virtual learning a substitute for in-person learning.
“The intention of this bill is to ensure that should the worst-case scenario continue or come back in the future, we’re better prepared next time,” he said.
But looking forward, bill sponsor Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, a Greenwich Republican, noted that nearly 30 states already have online public schools, and some Connecticut students may benefit from such an option in the coming years.
“As we study the future of virtual learning, I think Connecticut could also be one of these states that has accredited public, online school options for families … who might be health compromised, or children who suffer from bullying,” she said. “There’s many different reasons why families might want to take an accredited public online option. … This is something we should consider.”
Gov. Ned Lamont, a strong proponent of in-person education throughout the pandemic, said during a recent visit to Windsor Locks High School that while the state wants everyone back in school buildings next fall, it is likely some families will not feel ready by then.
“Maybe they have a compromised immune system. … There are a variety of reasons why they can’t,” he said. “So I think there will be some virtual learning that continues. I think virtual learning is going to be a part of school for the rest of time.”
Amanda Blanco can be reached at [email protected]