Schools Need Resources — And Time — to Get this Right
By Robin Jacobowitz and KT Tobin
On August 7th Governor Cuomo announced that our COVID numbers in New York State were sufficiently low to allow us to send our K-12 children, our teachers, and school staff back into school buildings. There’s a good reason for wanting to do this. The closure of our schools left us hurting in so many ways: hungry children; struggles to find childcare; parents working from home while trying to guide their childrens’ online learning; and lost instruction despite the very best efforts of educators to make the quick switch to remote learning.
But reopening school buildings is no easy task. And it doesn’t come without significant costs for already cash-strapped districts. The “musts” and “recommends” of the 145-page-long New York State Education Department (NYSED) guidance for reopening proves this point. We are not criticizing the NYSED’s work here; they are in the unenviable place of having to identify and demand what’s needed to transform the aspirational into reality for school districts. Their guidance appropriately focuses on the physical, educational, and emotional health and safety of our students and teachers. Unfortunately, however, this has created a whole new level of “unfunded mandate.”
Let’s take, first, the most fundamental objective of the guidance: assuring the physical safety of students and school personnel.
This requires what we all know by now, a minimum six-foot distance between people. In order to achieve this, school districts must reduce the capacity of their buildings, which means that not all students can be physically present in the building, or their classrooms, at the same time. One approach, planned in some school districts, is to send only half of students (the youngest students, for example) to campus for in-person instruction all five days of the week; the other half (older students) will remain on a remote learning platform. The Kingston City School District has proposed such a model. In this scenario, teachers and teaching assistants will have to “spread out” to cover double the number of classrooms for those students in attendance at school. A different scheme alternates days for groups of students, bringing half of the student body to school for two days a week, the second half the other two days, and leaving one day of remote instruction for everyone (see, for example, the Highland Central School District’s plan). In this scenario, teachers must simultaneously manage in-person and remote instruction. It’s all pretty dizzying.
One obvious way to ease the challenge of making such systems work, would be to hire more teachers to cover the more numerous in-person classes and to support remote learning for the portion of students who are at home, particularly while the classroom teacher is teaching the portion of students who are in school. But there’s no additional funding for that. In fact, the opposite is true: cuts are expected. Another solution to reducing building capacity might be to use outdoor spaces for instruction; in general, there’s no additional funding for that either. (Such sites must have access to bathrooms, running water, appropriate drainage, etc.).
Another aspect of assuring physical safety in schools, NYSED suggests, is that buildings “meet or exceed minimum ventilation requirements.” Recently renovated schools are likely to have proper ventilation systems. But many school buildings in NYS are old. Administrators may struggle with this standard, especially in colder months when windows can’t be opened. A recent Washington Post story on indoor air quality outlines the immense challenges. That piece quotes Richard Corsi, dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University, an air-quality expert, who told the Post he’s worried about K-12 schools being able to pay for the technology they’ll need to clean their environment.
A third need is for personal protective equipment (PPE) and appropriate cleansers (i.e. hand sanitizer) for school personnel and students. It will be difficult to obtain the quantities required for the schools to open, and then continue to operate, safely throughout the school year. And all that PPE certainly isn’t free. Districts will have to dig into their already-strained budgets to fund this extra expense.
In addition to addressing physical safety, the NYSED guidance states that students’ emotional and mental health must be top priority, but not at the expense of academics. Along these lines, the guidance suggests implementing a prolonged orientation or transition period to support students’ social and emotional wellbeing before phasing in academic content. But it is hard to see how schools can dedicate the appropriate time and energy to this endeavor without some impact on traditional and state-required academic metrics.
One solution might be to hire more social workers, guidance counselors, and psychologists to support students’ wellbeing both during the transition back to school and in the days that follow. But, you guessed it, there’s no additional funding for that. Another would be to release schools from the curricular mandates and testing requirements that force a relentless march toward an end-of-the-year test. Leniency here would free up some time to focus on students’ emotional wellbeing, to attend to students with the highest need, and to give teachers the requisite time needed to adapt their pedagogy to this new environment.
School administrators across the state have already dedicated endless hours to creating reopening plans. These professionals routinely integrate myriad additional mandates into their already packed schools and schedules: addressing the many requirements of reopening is no different. But without the appropriate support — funding, time, freedom from testing mandates — we are, yet again, placing undue burden on our schools, families, and students.
So, where does this leave us, right now, just four weeks before the first day of school in NYS? Realistically, additional funding is going to be hard to come by, especially as state coffers are bare and the federal government is dragging its feet. But time is a resource that is more firmly in our control. One thing that we can do right now to help alleviate some pressure on our schools is to relieve curricular and testing mandates.
So here’s at least one recommendation.
The Board of Regents did the right thing when they cancelled the grades 3-8 standardized tests and the Regents exams in 2019-20. Given the current context, the Board of Regents should take this action again — and soon — for the 2020-21 school year. Release from the pressure of this testing would give teachers the time and space to address students’ emotional needs. And it would also give administrators and teachers time and space to assess and implement how to be effective educators in 2020-21 and into the future.