When the state Board of Regents gets together via conference call to hold its monthly meeting on Monday and Tuesday, the method of communication won’t be the only first for them.
Most of the substantive topics that need to be discussed are new, too.
Schools were closed across the state by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for two weeks on March 16, and then until April 15. Now, although the return date has not been officially changed again, no one believes students and educators will be reporting back to school on a date when the state is projected to be crippled by raging coronavirus infections and catastrophic death rates.
So what do the Regents have to decide, or decree? For starters:
- Are schools physically closed for the remainder of the year?
- Will Regents exams be held?
- Will final exams be held?
- Absent Regents and final exams, how will graduation eligibility be determined?
- Absent Regents and final exams, how will final grades be determined?
- Can schools hold graduation ceremonies? Proms?
- Can soon-to-be teachers, who were supposed to be doing student teaching this semester, be certified as teachers for the upcoming school year?
And in many ways that’s just the easy stuff.
Students are supposed to be doing distance learning via lesson plans, resources and schedules set up by the districts. But the differences in expertise and resources among districts and the children they serve have been exacerbated by the closing of school buildings.
Long Island Regent Roger Tilles said that while there are districts whose students nearly all have great broadband connections and whose teachers are technologically savvy, other less wealthy districts do not. In Syosset, for instance, some teachers have “flipped” school, having students watch lectures at home online when they once would have been doing homework, and doing problem sets or written work in school where the teachers can help them when they run into roadblocks.
But Tilles said that in many poorer districts many teachers might not have the skills to stream lectures, and many households might not have the technology needed to receive them or the stable disciplinary structure needed to make sure children do the work.
There are also issues of pay, with teachers being asked to skip spring break and work but no extra funding to pay them for the additional days. There is uncertainty about districts reaching their legal 180-day minimum of classroom instruction if school does not resume on campus, which it almost certainly will not. There are parents demanding the schools do reopen, both because they want their kids learning more and because they desperately want them out of the house.
And there is the biggest issue: getting the students caught up next year.
“There are districts that are very clear on what their plan is,” Tilles said. “They’ll use the first semester next year, when they’re used to doing a certain amount of refreshing after the summer learning loss, to do what ought to have been done this spring. Then they’ll accelerate learning and lesson plans through the rest of the year to get caught up.”
But the problems are likely to be extreme for lower-performing districts, with their large numbers of students performing below grade level already, huge cadres of foreign-language learners and difficulties keeping student learning on pace even at the best of times.
What these challenged districts are going to need is more resources. That’s what the state has already said, as of now, that it will not have to give. They’ll also need more oversight, something they often do not welcome.
Cuomo and the State Legislature are passing a budget that cuts out state aid to school increases. And the districts themselves won’t find taxpayers in a likely recession welcoming tax increases above the state’s 2 percent cap. But the needs are going to be deep, and if they go unfilled, the students will suffer.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.