BOSTON — Schools are scrambling for ways for students to learn from home amid mandatory closures from the coronavirus pandemic, but a technological divide means that many districts lack the ability to set up virtual classrooms.

Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all public schools closed for three weeks, beginning Tuesday, as part of a broader effort to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

As of Tuesday, Massachusetts has recorded 218 positive cases of COVID-19, including eight in Essex County, according to the state Department of Public Health.

School administrators have been holding conference calls with state education officials, and the lack of remote technology is a pressing concern for many districts.

"There's going to be lot of variety in terms of what school districts can provide during the shutdown," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "Some districts will be able to do significantly more than others, unfortunately, and that's a function of the inequities that we currently have in the system."

Many teachers use Google Classroom and other online resources that allow students to get homework assignments, submit classwork and reports, and communicate with instructors remotely.

Some schools have pooled resources to purchase laptops and tablets for students while others have set up virtual classrooms for specific subjects.

But many districts don't have the broadband capacity to use webinars and video conferencing, or conduct online tests and assessments to gauge students' work from home.

While schools are struggling to implement online curriculums on short notice, many homes aren't tech-ready so children can log in to virtual classrooms.

The state's largest teachers' union said the temporary shutdowns will expose "vast inequities" in the digital capacity of the state's 406 school districts.

"Students in middle-class and affluent communities have access to resources and will be able to manage," said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "For students in low-income districts, inequality will continue to worsen."

College exams

Jackie Reis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state is working with districts to facilitate remote learning.

"We want kids to continue learning, but exactly how that will happen is something we continue to work on," she said. "We also recognize that not all students have computers or Internet access at home."

Reis said the state has partnered with the WGBH Educational Foundation to make some of its online educational resources available to educators and students.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is delaying standardized testing, which could have an impact on college admissions and how academic achievement in public schools is measured.

The College Board has canceled SAT exams scheduled for May 1 while ACT — another college admissions exam — has canceled its April 4 exam at 4,000 sites across the country.

The College Board is also working offset the impact of school closures on high school students by allowing them to take Advanced Placement exams at home.

"We're working to give every AP student the opportunity to claim the college credit they’ve earned," the board in a statement. "Together with our member schools and colleges, we will be flexible, thoughtful and collaborative in exploring ways to continue to support student learning and provide opportunities to test during this challenging time."

In Massachusetts, pressure is growing on education officials to cancel — or postpone — upcoming MCAS exams that were scheduled to get underway next week.

What's not yet clear is how the three-week shutdown will affect school calendars, including graduation dates, or whether the school year will be extended into the summer.

Under state law, public schools are required to have at least 180 days of instruction during a given school year.

While students in some North of Boston districts have stayed connected to their classrooms and teachers despite the prolonged break, it's not the case across the region.

Upgrades needed

Triton Regional School District Superintendent Brian Forget said his district — which includes Newbury, Rowley and Salisbury — is one of many not set up for distance learning.

"We are not a one-to-one district, so while we have devices in the schools, we have not provided them to students," he said. "We're trying to work through those challenges."

The state has provided some grant money to districts in recent years to help them upgrade their remote learning systems, but administrators say the funding is a drop in the pan.

A $929 million technology bond bill passed in 2014 included $38 million for a matching-grant program to help public schools upgrade technology.

Massachusetts schools are also be eligible for the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate Program, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars to school districts to upgrade high-speed broadband access. Under the program, districts that qualify can get reimbursed for up to 90% of the costs of installing new broadband and technology.

To fill the technology void, some educational companies that specialize in K-12 online learning are offering services to districts as a temporary fix.

One company, Study.com, is touting a platform that's popular among home-schooled students as an option for schools amid the prolonged shutdowns.

Another, Outschool, which offers online classes for students through the videoconferencing platform Zoom, is offering webinars to schools that are interested in using video-conferencing as a way to hold classes.

Still, Najimy of the MTA points out remote learning "won't replicate what educators do every day in the classroom, no matter the socioeconomic status of the community."

"Nothing replaces face-to-face contact between educators and their students," she said. "Any alternative learning product that we put in place is no substitute for the high-quality classroom experience that only educators can provide."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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