ALBANY (TNS) — Educators, parents and advocates will be closely watching today’s Board of Regents meeting when state education officials are expected to outline how New York schools can safely reopen in the fall amid the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
The Board of Regents and state Education Department held four virtual regional reopening taskforce meetings last month to gather input from stakeholders on the regulatory changes need for schools to continue safely educating students.
The guidance will be based on feedback from more than 300 experts and stakeholders in health and education who lent their expertise. Education officials also held a meeting specifically for students to get a sense of how to improve their experience for the coming school year.
”By working together with students and other stakeholders, we will ensure that the issues of health, safety, and educational equity always come first,” State Education Commissioner Shannon Tahoe and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said in a statement.
New York’s more than 700 public school districts, as well as charter schools and private schools, have until July 31 to submit an individual reopening plan. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will make the ultimate decision on whether schools can safely reopen in the fall by the first week in August based on the lastest infection data, he said last week.
Talks among educational leaders about what the classroom might look like in the fall have been underway for weeks, but school districts have been unable to move forward without specific safety guidelines and regulatory flexibility to put a plan into practice, educational leaders say.
”Districts need to know what happens when a student or staff member has COVID-19,” David Albert, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association said. “If you go back to March, there was some confusion about who had the authority to close a school... one thing we’ll need is clarification on what happens and who makes what decision.”
Districts are facing numerous obstacles in planning for the coming school year. They anticipate increased costs associated with protective equipment and sterilization of school grounds. Without the availability of a vaccine, there will inevitably be teachers with underlying health conditions who cannot teach in the classroom and parents who are uncomfortable sending their children back to school.
It’s unclear whether sports and recreational activities can safely resume.
Once a decision has been made on reopening schools, plans will differ by region based on infection rates.
Throughout New York — including in Cattaraugus County and the Southern Tier — school officials have discussed providing a hybrid of online and in-person schooling to reduce density in the classroom and on the school bus. Proposals include staggering class times or having students attend school every other day, or having some students study at home while others learn in the classroom.
The Associated Press on Wednesday reported that most New York City students will return to their physical schools two or three days a week and learn remotely the rest of the time.
Advocates are also weighing in ahead of today’s meeting, releasing immediate recommendations for reopening schools in the fall as well as ideas on how to improve access and outcomes for underserved students.
The shift to remote learning has amplified inequities both for low-income students, who do not have access to the internet or mobile devices, as well as for those students with disabilities who require more direct instruction.
The Alliance for Quality of Education has compiled input from parents, educators, and students in a “Roadmap to a Just Reopening and Just Schools” report, with the goal of amplifying those voices in the conversation around reopening.
“An urgent conversation is happening nationwide on how to reopen schools in the fall, but lost entirely from this conversation is the purpose of our schools: how we are going to educate our children?” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education. “Governor Cuomo senselessly turned to business leaders to guide the reopening of schools making it all the more essential that the voices of parents, students and families — those whose futures are being decided — are at the forefront of this process.”
The Education Trust–New York has released a body of data that highlighted growing dissatisfaction with distance learning. A survey found that parent satisfaction with distance learning dropped from 57 percent of parents in March to 43 percent in June.
Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust–New York said the guidance released on July 13 should “prioritize educational equity and set clear, consistent, and high expectations from the state about the services and supports that school districts are expected to provide all students and families.”
“New York only has two choices: to allow the pre-existing inequities in our education system to continue to widen, or to take deliberate action to address them,” Rosenblum said.
On a national level, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had released its own set recommendations while strongly advocating that students return to the classroom as soon as possible, arguing that school is critical for students social and emotional growth and safety.
”The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020,” according to AAP.
Meanwhile, labor unions like New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) have emphasized safety, saying school cannot reopen unless they have adequate masks and sterilization tools, a system of six-foot distancing that is enforced and accommodations are made for students and staff at risk of contracting the virus.
“Health and safety of students, families, educators and other school staff, and equitable access to a high-quality education must be the top priorities in reopening schools,” NYSUT President Andy Pollotta said.