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SAANYS Testimony to the Reimagine Education Advisory Council

Presented by:  Kevin Casey, Executive Director
May 27, 2020

Thank you for inviting me to present to the Reimagine Education Advisory Council. The School Administrators Association of New York State, or SAANYS, represents approximately 8,000 building principals, assistant principals and program leaders bearing a variety of titles. In addition to running buildings, our members supervise instruction, technology, food service, transportation, and facilities among other areas. They have been at the absolute center of the on-the-ground response of schools to the COVID-19 crisis.

Lessons Learned

Technology

The rapid switch to a technology-based learning proved challenging. Students did not have equal access to personal devices, many parents did not have sufficient knowledge of the devices or software products, and access to the internet is often woefully inadequate. Getting all devices in proper working condition, distributing the devices, and providing technical support to families and students that were not in the building was difficult. A reimagined system will need to ensure that all students have access to personal devices and educational applications and our technology departments will need to be all purpose supports to both students and families. We need to take on the burden of making this easy for those families that need that support.

High quality distance learning is not the same thing as emergency online instruction. To reimagine a blended learning environment where some instruction is provided at schools with a portion online will require an infusion of professional development and hands-on development of virtual learning courses. Blended learning (online and in-person) requires an intensity of planning and implementation that is currently underestimated.  While devices and adequate internet access are foundational to distance learning, we have to recognize that distance learning can be isolating, and it’s important that we remain purposeful regarding the maintenance personal connectedness. A high-quality online experience incorporates instruction, online group work, online discussions and motivated individual learning. What occurred after schools closed, was not distance learning, but rather emergency remote experiences.

Mental Health

We learned that relationships matter, and that administrators, staff, students and families found different and new ways to communicate. The direct communication with students in their homes and increased discussions with families provided insights and understandings of the context in which our students live. Many of the insights demonstrated the extreme stress under which many of our students are placed.  Unfortunately, the stress resulted in limited educational participation for a number of students. Social emotional wellness activities and assessments should precede even the assessment of learning loss upon the return of students to schools.

In the recent past, administrators have been strongly advocating for increased mental health services in schools. Administrators, teachers and a minimal number of mental health providers have been key providers of support to students in dealing with their anxieties.  This recommended wellness assessment may stress local resources, but nevertheless should be a priority. The COVID-19 crisis has shined an even brighter light on the emotional needs of students. A reimagined educational system needs to integrate mental health services into schools at a much higher level. Bringing expanded mental health services into the schools is a critical piece to a future modeling of education.

Special Education/ELL

The provision of special education to students with disabilities was problematic at best. The New York Times called it a “crisis within a crisis.”  The emergency online learning was not thought to be successful in most cases for students with disabilities. The due process requirements presented so many challenges to administrators and families that it was prescription for failure. Although regulating agencies indicated that they would provide as much flexibility as possible, the advocacy community largely insisted that due process be strictly maintained. Evaluations, annual meetings, IEPs, and due process procedures, with specific time requirements, were very difficult to meet and is an untenable situation for districts. A reimagined system of special education will have to strike a balance between schools operating under unusual emergency conditions and due process requirements.  If schools must close in the future, we need to ensure that students with special education are provided actual service.  This may mean providing alternate locations that are medically safe and set up to provide needed services.  These emergency-like services would likely apply to a percentage of ELL students as well, where language barriers inhibit the full utilization of available technologies.  We must find ways to ramp up capacity to provide services to vulnerable students much in the same way as we ramped up hospital capacity in response to the COVID-19 virus.

Instruction and Assessments

During the closing of schools due to the COVID-19 crisis we learned to peel away layers of instruction and concentrate on essential standards and learning. As soon as schools were closed and remote learning was started, instruction was streamlined and  standardized testing ended. This minimalist situation presents an opportunity to examine our current instructional program. Over time our instruction has been layered, filled with extraneous special interests and uneven across districts. It is possible to imagine a new instructional program that is based on a portfolio that integrates all disciplines from the start, as opposed to siloed courses that only sometimes integrate crossover topics. A reimagined instructional framework would not read like a catalogue of courses, but rather a tailored student-centered project based approach.

Dual Role of Schools as Educational and Day Care

We have largely thought that schools are educational institutions and we perhaps did not fully appreciate the symbiotic relationship of schools as a child/student care provider. Mandating schools as essential to the provision of meals and childcare for families was a shift that underscored the need to reimagine a fully integrated early education and care system, along with a K-12 educational program that incorporates after school programming as well. The siloed and overly complex system that utilizes private pay, federal funding, grants, subsidies, with multitude of early care and after school programming is not effective. The current approach  that adds some funding for a splintered system is not working and has not resulted in a tenable system for families or schools. We need to reimagine a school that offers fully integrated early care and robust after school support programs for all students.

Safety/Future Preparation

Administrators across the state are well underway in their planning for the reopening of schools whether that occurs in the fall or at another date. I will not address their thinking on the immediate needs of reopening as they will be driven by conforming to public health requirements or district specific decisions. What may be necessary to consider for reimagining and preparation for other crises is the need for sufficient staff to adhere to applicable disinfecting protocols.  Current staffing patterns will not be sufficient for the detailed level of cleaning and disinfecting schools daily, or even more frequently.  It may be necessary to consider public warehouses for prepositioned high demand supplies that schools can access to ensure the safety of students and staff alike.

As we move closer to a reopening, in whole or in part, we urge the Council to closely watch other countries which have opened their schools ahead of us. Their experiences may prove to be instructive.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 crisis brought into sharp focus the fact that schools are not just educational enterprises. Our schools are providers of primary day care, after school programs, comprehensive meal and food distribution, and mental health services. In addition, the instructional demands on schools have increased every year. We have added courses, assessments, special interest courses and extensive extracurricular programs. Administrators have become adept at managing crises, but our schools are strained to the maximum.

We believe any proposed statutory or regulatory change should provide sufficient lead time for those charged with implementation to consider and communicate local consequences. We urge sensitivity to the concept of local control as rarely does one size effectively fit all.

Based on the substantial member feedback that I received after the formation of the Council was announced, suffice it to say that there is deep disappointment that this Council does not include a principal or school program leader, but we do appreciate this opportunity to be heard.

We have a couple of general suggestions that we believe would help maximize the effectiveness of this Council. The first would be for the Council to clearly and consistently provide clarity of its purpose. The idea would be to minimize the conflation that we have seen among this Council, NY Forward and/or the SED Task Force on Reopening Schools. Increased clarity will result in more effective implementation of ideas and will minimize redundancy of effort during this busy time.

The second general recommendation is to clearly state the role of the Gates Foundation relative to this reimagining effort.  Fair or not, the participation of the Gates Foundation inflames the passions of a significant number of educators. It has already rallied some to oppose this Council based upon preconceptions before its work had even started. We have seen in the past where practitioner opposition to education policy becomes widespread, it creates political opposition as well. For the Council’s ideas to get fair consideration on a substantive level, the less turmoil the better, and the greater the Council’s reliance upon education practitioners the better. We were encouraged by recent public comments by both Governor Cuomo and Dr. Malatras to the effect that distance learning cannot replace in-person teaching. If we have learned anything over the past two and one-half months, it’s that in-person instruction is critical to student success. If this Council’s efforts are seen as promoting technology over in-person teaching, that perception alone could mire its work product in on-going ground level opposition.

Let’s reimagine an expanded educational system. School districts across the state understand that schools have become a hub for the community. If you view schools through an administrator’s eyes, you will see a school that opens its doors as early as 6:00 am and closes after late night meetings, that is open on weekends for community use and is open during the summer months. The concept of community schools providing a variety of services is now becoming our reality. This necessitates a level of funding sufficient to allow the schools to satisfy the demands being placed upon them. We recognize that the current fiscal situation creates significant funding challenges, but increased community needs warrant funding sufficient to meet those needs.

Lastly, we would like to acknowledge the outstanding efforts of teachers, building and program leaders, superintendents and central office staff and board members in rapidly adapting to emergency circumstances so that the schools can continue to serve the school children and their families. We would be remiss if we did not stop to say thank you to those educators who have gone above and beyond in a display of prolonged high-level professionalism.

Thank you for this opportunity to submit testimony to this Council.