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New York State reinforcing Long Island's racial education gap

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Racial disparities in education increased nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. In New York, those disparities were reinforced by the state Education Department’s failure to respond adequately to the crisis. Interviews with local school officials conducted by ERASE Racism reveal the dramatic implications on Long Island.

New York State has the most-segregated schools in the nation. The situation on Long Island, one of America’s 10 most-segregated metro regions, is aggravated further by the fragmentation of its two counties into 124 school districts.

Yet state education officials let school districts across New York fend for themselves, as COVID-19 forced a shift to remote learning. That decision reinforced existing racial disparities in educational quality.

Majority African American and Latinx school districts on Long Island, especially those that are intensely segregated, had struggled prior to COVID-19 to reach the coveted status of One to One: one computer device for each student. Some districts in communities of color, like Brentwood, which has 19,000 majority Latinx students, Wyandanch, and Hempstead, had begun planning and budgeting to get devices for nearly all students in the 2020-2021 school year. But when the pandemic struck, a nationwide scramble by districts to order devices caused excess demand and months-long shipping delays.

Not until late Fall 2020 could some, but not all, of the more fragile districts on Long Island provide devices to students. Some still struggle to replace broken devices and equip new students. Others are still distributing internet hotspot devices.

ERASE Racism learned about this in a series of telephone interviews it conducted of school officials in several intensely segregated school districts on Long Island. The Central Islip school district illustrates what can happen absent a state-level policy and action to ensure that all districts and students have the means required for quality instruction and learning.

Central Islip, a district of 8,500 students, reported that nearly one year after the pandemic struck in March 2020, they are still in need of thousands more devices to reach One to One for all students in K-12. An immediate need to supply students in grades six through 12 requires 584 more devices. Administrators cannot yet provide internet access to all students who need it.

This is what happens when all school districts are left to fend for themselves, regardless of capacity. The state failed to intervene but can act now to ensure that all students are well served through remote connectivity, which will be part of education forever.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently announced the approval of $59.9 million to fund district Smart Schools Investment Plans for classroom technology and other resources. Ten Long Island school districts will get $9.6 million of that in widely varying amounts. But the plans upon which the aid is based were submitted in some cases years ago. The Uniondale school district is receiving $3.8 million to replace temporary pre-K classrooms, a top priority three years ago, but no money for devices for 2,000 of the district's 7,100 majority Black and Latinx students who still need them, according to administrators.

The state must ensure a floor of instruction and learning for every school and every student that is high-quality and technologically sufficient. It has an obligation to tackle the racial disparities in education that it oversees.

Elaine Gross is president of ERASE Racism, a regional civil rights organization based on Long Island.

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