State Boards Seek Rule Waivers, Best Practices to Counter COVID-19

By Joseph Hedger

On March 13, 2020, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency concerning the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. As confirmed cases across the United States continued to rise, state education policymakers found themselves struggling to keep students safe and prepared to weather the disruption in their educations from school closings. As of March 25, 47 states and the District of Columbia made the decision to close all schools in their state to slow the spread of the virus.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced on March 20 that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is allowing states that are unable to assess their students to request a one-year standardized testing waiver. Days earlier, Michigan’s state school superintendent and the president of the state board of education wrote to Secretary DeVos to urge such a waiver.

Massachusetts and Ohio have postponed their statewide assessments for a later date in the school year; 42 cancelled and/or requested federal testing waivers, as of March 25.

States can also request waivers on state accountability measures, which allow schools to maintain current school quality grades even if they do not meet summative assessment requirements or targets for reducing chronic absenteeism—two factors exacerbated by emergency school closures. Twenty-nine states have requested federal accountability waivers for this school year so far.

On March 19, the Mississippi State Board of Education voted to suspend all federal and state assessments for the 2019–20 school year and also to allow districts to forgo the state’s 180-day school year requirement. Waiving 180-day requirements has been a common COVID-19 response and occurred in such states as Connecticut, New York, Tennessee, and Utah. In New Hampshire, school districts that fall short of 180 days can request a waiver from the state board of education.

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis announced that the state will cancel assessments and pause school accountability for this year in order to ensure schools and educators can spend “as much time as possible on online instruction.” This will allow schools and districts the flexibility to determine ways to deliver continued instruction to the extent that they are able.

The Utah State Board of Education voted to suspend statewide assessments and waived a list of rules, including instructional day and hour requirements, transportation requirements, and extended deadlines for various programs that fall between April and May. These waivers became effective immediately and are conditioned on school closures and closure plans and providing notice and communication of suspension and reconvening of school services.

By March 10, the Illinois State Board of Education had issued guidance and FAQs for schools and districts. The early documents pointed to resources, webinars, and suggestions on what to expect with school closures, how to deal with student absenteeism or missed assessments, and how to develop approvable e-learning plans.

To counter many issues schools statewide are facing, the Kansas State Board of Education established a Continuous Learning Task Force, with the primary goal of developing guidance for Kansas educators to meet the immediate needs of supporting learning outside of normal practices. They released a 76-page report with advice for dealing with technology challenges, delivery of meals, limited in-person instruction, and continuing school-based mental health services, among other topics.