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NY Schools Adjust During The Pandemic, Prepare For Tight Budgets

This is a picture of a teacher's classroom desk
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Schools in New York are closed for the rest of the academic year in response to the coronavirus pandemic while distance learning will continue. To discuss how education is faring amid the crisis, WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with David Albert, the chief communications officer for the New York State School Boards Association.

Levulis: David, first off, how are teachers and administrators adjusting to remote learning?

Albert: Well, you know, it has been an adjustment, and I think we're seeing that it's not necessarily consistent across the state. I think that there are a lot of factors involved. I mean, first is access to connectivity. And we know that in some of the rural areas of the state, there's less access than perhaps in some of the urban areas. So that that is certainly a factor there is a uniformity there. So not everyone can do distance learning. Some students are still kind of relying on homework assignments that are more traditional where they may have left school with a packet of information or they may be getting information in the mail. So another factor is the training. There really wasn't a lot of prep time schools were just kind of thrust into distance learning immediately. And so there wasn't a lot of time to prepare for this. So I think it's kind of learning as you go. And I think we've learned that certainly schools are going to want to look to more training in the distance learning area, professional development in that area. Obviously, access to connectivity is something we need to work on as a state matter of public policy, and then access to devices as well, because you can have the Wi Fi and the connectivity, but you need a device in order to do anything. So, I think these are all issues but by and large, I have to say I think schools have really pivoted well, if you will, and despite some of these obstacles, they have adjusted and they've done what they've had to do. And I think distance learning is probably going up. As good as it could, I don't think it really is a substitute for in person classroom learning at this point. And, you know, certainly there's a place for distance learning and it's filling a need right now. And I assume it will be a part of our plan going forward. But, you know, I think overall, schools have adapted Well, given so many obstacles that they faced.

Levulis: And Governor Andrew Cuomo has said, a decision about holding summer school classes will be made this month in may do education officials have any sense what that might look like?

Albert: Not really, you know, it's kind of alarming to say that in May, right, but these are the times we live in. So I think probably schools would most likely envision a distance learning type of scenario for summer school. So we know the governor said that he will make a decision about summer school by the end of this month. So summer school begins in let's say, July. I don't know if the circumstances have changed significantly at that point that we're going to see a normal traditional summer school, perhaps in some parts of the state that may be possible downstate? You know, I would think it would be a continuation of distance learning. And obviously, schools will need as much time to prepare for summer school as possible. So, the sooner that they know, the better they can prepare.

Levulis: The governor has also directed school districts to plan for an eventual reopening. What do those plans entail?

Albert: Yeah, so schools are really starting to think very seriously about this now and what schools will look like in September, I think when the governor announced that schools will be close to the end of the school year, it allowed schools to start focusing on September. And I think we were looking at a whole range of options, ranging from how would distanced learning occur in a school and how would it occur in the classroom? How would it occur in a cafeteria on a school bus? And there's a lot of different options that are being discussed at this point. So, would you stagger classes? You know, so would you have no more than 10 students per class, for example, so that students can safely distance in the classroom? Would you have to stagger the start times of classes or the sessions, if you will, morning session and afternoon session? Would you have staggered bus runs so that you wouldn't have so many students on a bus at the same time and you could safely distance? Lots of different options at this point. We've, heard people talking about taking temperatures before someone enters a school. You know, just there's a whole host of initiatives that are being discussed at this point. I think there's a lot of questions. Could you safely go on a field trip in the fall? A lot of questions that need to be answered. And we know that the State Education Department has a task force or team that's looking at reopening. I'm sure that schools will be awaiting guidance from the State Education Department as well as the health department. And I have to say I think schools will be working very closely with their local health departments as well as state education department when they put in place some of these practices but it does appear that schools will certainly be different in September than they've been in the past.

Levulis: And going beyond the teaching and the safety aspects that we've been discussing, how is this pandemic impacting the finances of school districts across New York State?

Albert: Well, we know already that school districts are getting, at least at this point, the same amount of foundation aid as they got. Foundation aid of course is the major category of state aid that schools get. We know that according to the budget that was passed on April 1, there certainly won't be an increase. And there's likely to be a decrease if we see what happened with state finances during the month of April. So the budget that was put in place, the state budget on April 1, basically held schools kind of flat with their state aid. But the governor has the ability and the division of the budget, has the ability to look at the revenues that are coming in from the state on a rolling basis throughout the year and then adjust the state budget accordingly. So the first period of review is April 1st to April 30th. So potentially any day now schools could be learning if their budget if their state aid will be adjusted downward or if it would remain flat based on revenues coming in from the state. So, the short answer to your question is, we expect this pandemic to have a tremendous effect a huge effect on school districts financially, a very negative effect. We know that during the Great Recession, from the period about 2008 to 2012, school districts shed about 20,000 positions. We expect that this scenario that we're experiencing now is going to be much worse from an economic standpoint than what we experienced in the in the Great Recession. And so there is the potential for 10s of thousands of job losses throughout the state and school districts which would absolutely devastate our schools and learning for students.

Levulis: Is that 20,000 figure that you cited in New York State?

Albert: Correct. 20,000 in New York State.

Levulis: Wow. David with buildings shuttered and no need to transport students or student athletes during this time, are there any measurable savings for school districts at the moment?

Albert: So there may be some areas of savings. I think it's going to be district by district. So for example, some districts are using school buses to transport meals to students. So in that case, there may not really be much of a savings in fuel costs or maintenance costs on transportation because the buses are running, albeit for a different purpose. There may be some small savings in the area of substitute teachers, obviously other things like that. But schools are continuing to remain open and from the sense of a distance learning perspective, so people are working teachers are teaching, and I don't know that schools are going to realize huge savings. It may be there are some schools that will. Larger school districts perhaps may receive may realize some savings. But, again, I think the thing to keep our eye on is what happens with state aid because we're about to enter a new school year. The 2020, 2021 school year begins July 1 for many school districts. And so as we enter that year, you know, if there are any savings that districts can carry over from this year into next, they're likely going to need that, if we do see cuts to public education. So I'm sure districts will obviously budget that way. But we're seeing right now, you know, districts are waiting to see what the governor does in terms of this first review period with state aid, the April 30th review period, and I think they're going to be, you know, putting their budgets together as soon as we hear from the governor what the status of state aid is.

Levulis: And the governor has issued an executive order delaying school board elections and budget votes in New York until June 9. The elections and budget votes will be conducted by mail, and voters will be sent an absentee ballot. Do you think that will have any impact on voter participation in districts’ budget processes?

Albert: So it's certainly going to have an impact on budget processes, whether it will impact voter participation remains to be seen. We, we've never done this before. We're in uncharted territory. So all of the votes will be through absentee ballots. So, we just don't know, this is a whole new process for schools. So schools have been having budget votes for a very long time. They have a process in place for in person polls. This is a completely new process that they have to put in place and essentially four weeks. So it is presenting a tremendous challenge, for districts who will have to find lists of qualified voters in their districts, mail out absentee ballots to all of those, incur the postage for that, and return postage as well. So it's really it's a tremendous lift for school districts doing this in such a short period of time. And we just don't know at this point how many people will vote in the school budgets. And it is, as I said, uncharted territory, but it is also adapting to the new normal, as people say.

Levulis: And finally, David, you spoke a bit about this earlier on. Of course, many sectors have been impacted by the pandemic and have had to adjust how they go about business. When it comes to education. Do you think there will be a greater reliance on remote learning and some of these other measures that have been instituted in recent weeks even after the pandemic ends?

Albert: So I think we will see more distance learning. You know, I don't know that we're going to completely turn away from that after this experience. I mean, first of all, we never know. People talk about a second wave of this virus and if that were to happen, I think schools would go back to distance learning. I think there are going to be cases where some people will find that it is actually beneficial to maybe have a hybrid school day, if you will, which would be part of it as in person, part of it is distance learning. And that could be part of what schools look like when they reopen in September. So I do think that distance learning is going to become something that we see on a more widespread basis going forward. And I also think districts will be working with their teachers unions to kind of envision how that might look like in their individual districts going forward.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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