LAWRENCE — Students looking to escape coronavirus risks and the many challenges presented to families amid the COVID-19 pandemic can breathe a little easier now that Lawrence Public Schools has adopted an interim policy related to school attendance.

Unanimously approved by the Lawrence Alliance for Education Thursday, the new policy takes effect this week for students currently learning outside of Lawrence, according to Assistant Superintendent Denise Snyder. Snyder presented the policy change as a way to "improve attendance and academic outcomes."

"Families have incurred hardships related to the pandemic, including childcare, unemployment and healthcare concerns — the list could go on and on — and as a solution, some of our families have sought relief by temporary relocation of their students, or their whole families, outside of Lawrence," Snyder said. "This is not about them moving out of Lawrence: This is about them finding solutions that work for them economically, for childcare, for support, that have caused them temporarily to be somewhere else. Often with grandma, with a sister or brother, or someone else."

According to coronavirus statistics released Tuesday by the mayor's office, 7,609 residents have tested positive for the disease and 152 have died.

Voting to adopt the plan during a remote Zoom meeting were LAE chairman Dr. Ventura Rodriguez, sitting on the board on behalf of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Mayor Daniel Rivera; Patricia Mariano, a member of the Lawrence School Committee and a former principal of the Francis Leahy School; insurance agent Julia Silverio; Lawrence Community Works Executive Director Jessica Andors; and Noemi Custodia-Lora, a vice president of Northern Essex Community College in charge of the college’s Lawrence campus. They were joined at the meeting by Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Cynthia Paris.

According to Snyder, families with students learning remotely outside of Lawrence must sign a contract stating that they have reliable technology — loaned to them from the district or purchased on their own — and consistent internet access. The policy also stipulates students will adhere to the Lawrence Public Schools' attendance and grading policy, and return to in-person learning when their peers living in the city do, Snyder said.

Students with absences that reach the chronic level, 10% of their enrolled days, may be withdrawn from the district.

Families who fail to complete the contract or abide by the terms may be asked to return to Lawrence to continue their child's learning or re-enroll in their child in their new locality.

Rivera called the policy, set to benefit 2-3% of public school learners, "cutting-edge" and "supportive of our families."

The mayor has already seen how such a policy can benefit students, he said, after recently joining a Zoom call that included a student learning from the Dominican Republic. "At one point, the computer froze and it took a minute for her to get back on, but the education she's getting in the Dominican Republic is a lot better than what she'd get if we unenrolled her," Rivera said.

All Lawrence Public Schools students have been learning remotely from home since school began in mid-September. Teachers started the year instructing students from school buildings but shifted to teaching remotely in mid-October. Superintendent Paris and school officials expect to decide on a possible return to buildings for both high-needs learners and teachers by the end of this month, with Snyder confirming a two-to-three-week advance notice will be issued.

When LAE member Silverio asked if the policy extends to students taking an extended holiday vacation, for example, Snyder said yes, as long as the student is willing to adhere to the contract.

"If a parent finds themselves without work and has an opportunity to experience something different and their child shows up every day, being committed to the attendance and work policy, would it matter terribly? I don't think we've chosen to put a line in the sand about that," Snyder said, adding that the policy's goals are to avoid the larger accountability issues and possible learning gaps that may present if students relocate for extended periods.

Rivera supports the policy and was the first to move to adopt it.

“This is a huge example of how we stop the criminalization of poverty. These people are moving for money reasons and we’re going to say 'Go ahead, move: Take your device and your hotspot — which we’re paying for — and as long as you show up to class, it's all good.' I think this is awesome," he said.

The LAE board met for the first time in February 2018 after members were appointed by acting state Education Commissioner Jeff Wulfson. Receiver Jeff Riley announced he would leave Lawrence by July 1, 2019, nearly seven years after the state took over the city schools, citing their chronic underachievement, and named Riley to run them. When he left, Riley succeeded Wulfson as state education commissioner.

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