How can educators and students return to school and prepare for things like Regents exams and accelerated AP courses when its unclear if they will be protected from COVID-19?
How can you have remote learning when hundreds of thousands of students in New York State don't have access to a computer, have no way to attend class or follow lesson plans via the Internet?
On a day when New York State United Teachers filed a lawsuit against the state over reductions in school aid, those and other questions became prime discussion during an hourlong Newsday webinar Wednesday titled "School & COVID-19: Inevitable Changes to Education."
NYSUT president Andy Pallotta said health and safety concerns, as well as educational needs that would've been covered, at least in-part, by the funding being cut, must be addressed before teachers, administrators and education officials can even begin to think about course tracks and testing.
His counterpart on the webinar, Interim State Education Department Commissioner Dr. Betty A. Rosa, admitted "the unevenness" of "the delivery and systems we have in place" statewide. But she stressed that, despite the hurdles, everyone needs to work together and find a way. "Learning has to continue," she said.
At the heart of the matter is how to handle fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes how to best reopen schools taking air quality, ventilation systems, custodial services, PPE equipment, mask requirements, social distancing and yes, actual classroom and online education, into account — all when the Cuomo administration has started to "temporarily hold back 20% of its payments to local governments" as a way to reduce school spending, the NYSUT said.
According to the state Division of Budget, the state faces a pandemic-related revenue loss of $14.5 billion. As a result, the NYSUT said that state is withholding a portion of roughly $2.5 billion to school districts on Sept. 30.
Pallotta said that means so-called "low-wealth districts" — on Long Island, he cited Copiague and Brentwood — that are in most need of state funding will be the "districts that could be hurt the most." As he said, "We have battles ahead of us that we need to be together on."
Among other challenges, there aren't even basic statewide rules for districts welcoming students back to school, Pallotta said. Of some 700 districts statewide, he said, about 500 have enforceable face mask and social distancing policies — while about 200 have no mandatory face mask policies for students attending class in-person.
He pointed to a now-infamous scene from Georgia last week of students crammed into hallways without masks and said, "We don't want that."
Pallotta said: "A mandatory mask policy in the state would've been helpful. I go to Home Depot, I have to be six feet [from other customers] and have a mask on. There are some districts where I don't have to wear a mask."
It's all about "health and safety," he said. All before educators can even begin to deal with the basics of education for the 2020-21 school year.
Nevertheless, Rosa said, "We hope to deliver the hosting and learning and instruction" as expected for students, adding: "Whether it's hybrid, in-person, remote, we continue to think of the quality of that instruction — and we [need to] continue to ensure a way to deliver that learning process."
Pallotta cited some districts around the state that by the end of last school year were faced with teachers riding school buses, manila envelopes containing lesson plans in hands, going to student homes to hand out work assignments to kids who didn't have computer access. He said the same was true for delivering school meals.
"You need more services," he said, "not less. Budget cuts do the opposite [of what we're seeking to do]."
"There are so many ways we can continue to affect the learning process," Rosa said, adding that while in some areas "we're not there yet" that it's a goal everyone in the education field is committed to making happen. For the kids.