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Since the state’s initial shutdown in March due to COVID-19, Massachusetts school districts have needed to perform a delicate balancing act, choosing among a continuum of teaching models with full in-person and remote approaches at opposing ends of the spectrum. Behind the scenes, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) continues its role to provide funding, overall standards for learning, and support to help locally governed school districts navigate the evolving conditions of the coronavirus pandemic.

William Bell DESE

William Bell, Associate Commissioner and Chief Financial Officer at DESE

DESE plays a significant role in Massachusetts public education. Through legislative appropriation and federal grants, for example, the agency distributes nearly $7 billion a year to the Commonwealth’s 400+ school districts and, more recently, has allocated an additional $400+ million in federal CARES Act funding for COVID response. The state agency is tasked with providing public schools’ framework for curriculum and it strives to give all students equal access to education by way of the state and federal funds allocated to districts and compliance monitoring.

William Bell, Associate Commissioner and Chief Financial Officer at DESE – the finance guy behind the scenes – describes the agency as a collection of business units with wide-ranging roles, such as school and district support, curriculum and instruction, special education, education licensure, and food and nutrition programs.

“Each of our units has their own antenna and connections to our districts, providing us critical information to support the Massachusetts public school system,” describes Bill. “I’m fortunate to work with a talented group of folks and I see my role as empowering them to do what they do well.”
DESE oversees learning-time standards and is actively working to support schools in meeting those standards during the current pandemic environment.

“It’s been a challenge for everyone,” asserts Bill. “You need to be the compliance entity as well as a facilitator to support local education delivery. We respond to many constituencies, including students, parents, educators, school committees, and public officials. We are collectively working in this COVID reality to meet children’s educational needs while managing public health concerns.”

And DESE has provided support to schools on several noteworthy fronts.

Early on, as districts scrambled to make the shift from in-person to remote learning, DESE conducted a procurement to bring in virtual learning experts, giving districts a new set of tools to navigate the remote landscape. DESE also engaged the Operational Services Division (OSD) to acquire necessary personal protective equipment so schools would be optimally situated for reopening in the fall. The resulting DESE K-12 Health Safety Supply/PPE Program has given school districts simpler access to masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and other products to optimize a safe school environment.

For the facility piece, DESE was the conduit for making sure schools had swift access to facility and operations expertise. Working with OSD, a new PRF61 category was introduced for space planning, design, and HVAC expertise, among other related services. Most recently, DESE aggregated schools’ needs for air purifiers and is working with OSD and Statewide Contract vendors to acquire these products.

“I value the long-standing relationship I have with the State Purchasing Agent, Gary Lambert, and I have deep respect for the work his agency does. OSD has been instrumental in brokering school access to PPE and has paved the way to getting low-cost internet programs and hot spots to support remote learning. As intended, we’re using the expertise of our state colleagues to benefit our schools.”

Although personal protective equipment and remote learning tools are trending topics, food security is another important initiative tackled by the agency. DESE has supported districts as they make arrangements to feed remote learners and has worked with the Department of Transitional Assistance to ensure students qualifying for the national school lunch and breakfast programs receive additional benefits. DESE also assists districts with other behind-the-scenes logistics.

“We’ve had 25 staff working tirelessly on the food security piece. We support a huge program to ensure our students receive proper nourishment whether they are in school or learning remotely. Some districts have well-orchestrated pick up and distribution programs, while other districts are delivering meals.”

As you might expect, DESE consistently coordinates with the Governor’s office and the COVID command center and collaborates with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Health (DPH) to stay abreast of virus trends and effect a coordinated response. Local school districts routinely work with their local public health officials and they often look to DPH and DESE for help and guidance.

When asked about counseling school districts on in-person versus remote decisions, Bill advises, “You need to dig into what the numbers tell you and objectively review the incidence of spread to make sound decisions. You can’t let emotion take over. Everything must be fact-driven.”

Providing some sage words of advice, Bill reflects, “When you have worked as long as I have, you recognize that you need to react quickly sometimes, particularly when you’re in the middle of a public health crisis. But having the capacity to listen and diagnose also is critically important.”

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