Schools across New York suddenly shuttered in the spring when the novel coronavirus hit the state. Education leaders waded through an uncertain summer heading into an unprecedented fall. With the virus surging once again, WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Bob Schneider, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, who gave an assessment of how districts have responded to COVID-19.
Schneider: Well, what went right, is what I would say is what's been going right from the school district perspective since the beginning of COVID. Our superintendents, our administrators, our school boards, and our teachers, other staff, janitors, bus drivers, have just stepped up to the plate every time and delivered in a quite unusual time. And it was the unknown. So what we've done right is we've created a situation as far as reopening schools in September, where 83% of our schools are offering either on-site teaching, or hybrid, remote learning and on-site combined. And it's working out to a very safe degree. We're keeping the teachers, all the staff I mentioned, and the students safe and healthy. And we are reacting when there are cases, we're closing the schools, we're cleaning the schools, we're doing the testing. We spent a lot of money on this to make and ensure that safety, but the schools are focusing in on making sure that student gets the best educational experience available to them. And you and I both know the best experience is being in front of the teacher in the classroom, and also being in that building interacting with their peers, their friends, their teachers, other staff, it's so important that we keep them in there. So that was something we did very well. And we did it with not the promise of money to cover this. So we are not focusing in on that, we hope to get reimbursed, we hope to get federal stimulus money. But at this point, our schools have stepped up to the plate. And I hope the communities see that. And at the end of the day, the infection rates, the virus rates, in the schools are incredibly lower than what you typically see in that community. So I applaud our school boards, administrators, superintendents, and teachers and other staff for doing that.
Levulis: And I want to get to the financial piece a little bit later. But on the flip side of what you just discussed, what didn't seem to work for schools this fall?
Well, the most glaring thing, and we are working with SED [State Education Department] and other organizations, stakeholders to figure out this digital divide issue. And unfortunately, the students that were the most at risk, in poverty and/or in rural areas where there isn't a broadband capacity, acceptable capacity, that went wrong. We need to focus on this digital divide, because it just widened as a result of COVID. And you have students in urban areas that that can't afford internet access, they're not getting the device that they need. And then you have students in poverty and other students in rural areas that don't have the broadband accessibility. So they're not benefiting from that remote education to the degree other students are. And we're all about equity as far as the New York State School Boards Association. All students need to get that same education or have the opportunity to get that and have the resources behind it. So we're focusing in on that digital divide. We're trying to close that gap working with other organizations. But unfortunately, those students, they're going to need to be focused in on and they need to be caught up to speed. The other thing naturally, is the fact that because there is that remote element, and in some districts small percentage to doing complete remote, there are some gains we've seen as far as learning, but they're nowhere near the gains that occurred prior to the pandemic. And we do see losses and obviously the losses are amplified due to that digital divide I just discussed.
And taking what you mentioned, with what health experts have said that schools don't seem to be a high transmission area for COVID-19, and then what did go right this fall and of course, even going back to last spring when the pandemic hit New York, schools obviously, we're still open at that time. How should schools going forward approach the period after the holidays?
I think they continue to keep their protocols and planning in place. And they've been very, very good at that as I stated earlier, but they have to take the lead from the Department of Health and the governor. We don't we still don't know what's going to happen as far as the virus rates increases, if you will, the governor is dealing with this volatile situation on a day to day 24/7-basis so we have to take the lead from them. But the good news is we have these plans in place and we are deploying these plans and all the things that we need to do in line with what the Department of Health, State Education Department and the governor have asked us to do. So we have to be flexible. But we also need to get funding. And I know you're going to get to that, to cover this. We've been paying for these safety measures within our own finances and budgets, and we will be depleted at some point in the future without additional financing from both the state and the federal government.
Earlier this fall, the New York State School Boards Association did release a report finding that the average school district in New York would spend a half million dollars to cover costs related to COVID-19. And also that federal stimulus was needed for schools to stave off cuts to programming and staff. Is that still the case?
Yes, it is. We know the governor has withheld some state aid about $300 million from the summer, he has not cut those aids that aid payment yet. So we're hopeful that eventually the governor releases those aid payments to the districts. But he needs as we do the federal stimulus. And he's been saying that all along as we have we need that support from the federal government now, because we know the state revenues are down significantly. So we need that those two items. But in addition, we also asked that the governor, the division of budget, and the legislature will release some transportation aid reimbursements. Our school districts had to step up to the plate back in March, as you know, and they were required to deliver meals to the students that needed them, the breakfasts and lunches, they had to create a system to do that. A lot of districts used school buses to do that. There was other transportation things that the school districts had to do differently that weren't included in the specific transportation aid guidelines. So we're asking that the state will reimburse school districts for those unusual transportation costs. Right now, they have indicated that they will not. But we are seeing hopefully some right at the end of the tunnel, that'll change. So there's really three things financially, we need the state aid withholding to be paid out. We need the federal stimulus to come our way and then hopefully those transportation costs will be reimbursed that were outside of a normal allowable transportation costs.
At a Wednesday press conference after WAMC's interview with Bob Schneider, New York State Budget Director Robert Mujica said his office, working with the state education department, has sent a survey to districts to determine if schools buses were used for meal delivery. If they were, Mujica says the state will allow for those services to be reimbursed.
And you mentioned the state legislature there, it's set to convene in January. From an education standpoint, I know you mentioned the transportation costs, but what should lawmakers address as it as it pertains to New York schools? Is it that digital divide that you mentioned?
I think that's absolutely a priority, we've got to get the students back up to speed. And they have to have like I said, there has to be equity, and they have to have the adequate resources to learn. And that definitely is a priority. If the number we have is 27% of the students in the state do not have either the internet accessibility or the device accessibility, to have that equivalent opportunity as their fellow students. And when you appeal the digital divide back even further, there's other things that have to happen. In certain households. There's got to be additional supports to support those students in those households to make sure that they're getting the proper learning experience that their other students around the state are getting.