Report: School closures in state led to inequitable online learning

ALBANY — When schools in New York shifted to online learning in mid-March as coronavirus swept the state, the instruction was far from equal, a report Monday contended.

Poorer districts were less likely to offer online programming that mirrored in-person classrooms, and there were wide gaps in technology between high-need and low-need districts, the findings from The Education Trust-New York said.

The advocacy group said as New York considers reopening its schools this fall, the coronavirus pandemic shined a spotlight on inequities on student learning — with some districts more able to quickly adapt than others when the school doors shuttered three months ago.

The Manhattan-based group analyzed the nearly 700 “instructional continuity plans” that districts were required to submit to the state Education Department last spring after Gov. Andrew Cuomo shuttered them March 16.

“As state and school district leaders continue to plan for reopening schools, New York only has two choices: to allow the pre-existing inequities in our education system to continue to widen or to take deliberate action to address them,” said the group’s executive director Ian Rosenblum.

New York spends more than $22,000 per pupil on its education, which is 90% above the national average and the most in the nation.

But education advocates have pushed for more attention to poorer districts, particularly in its largest cities, where the achievement gap continues to be stark.

Last year, for example, just 13% of Rochester students were deemed proficient in math and English compared to about 46% statewide.

The disparities became more glaring when learning shifted to online, the Education Trust said.

For example, the reports provided by school districts showed low-income districts had larger gaps in student access to teachers and resources, the group said.

And many plans did not do enough to support students with disabilities, students who were homeless or English language learners. Districts also had mixed results in providing direct access to school counselors during the confusing times for students, the group’s report said.

Access to technology was also divergent: Two-thirds of districts said they were providing computers to some students, while 30% had enough computers for all students.

“The review of plans points to the need for clear, consistent and high expectations from the state about the services and supports that school districts are expected to provide all students and families,” the report said.

Internet access was another problem: Only 10% of school districts indicated that all students had high-speed internet access at home.

Cuomo has talked frequently in recent weeks about the inequities in schools amid the protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.

He said one of the reforms for the state and the nation should be addressing the gaps in education between wealthy and poor schools.

“Let’s talk about education equality because we have two education systems, one for the rich and one for the poor,” Cuomo said June 12 when he signed a package of police reforms.

“And you want to talk about justice, opportunity for all, why does one child who happens to be born to a poor family have a second-rate education to children who are born in wealthier communities?”

Still, New York faces a $13 billion revenue hole because of the economic shutdowns caused by the coronavirus, and that could mean a 20% cut in education aid if the federal government doesn’t provide a bailout, Cuomo has warned.

The state Education Department nor Cuomo’s office has released a plan to reopen schools in the fall, and Cuomo warned Sunday any reopening could be delayed if the virus’ spread doesn’t come down across the country — even as New York’s infection rate hit new lows.

“You look back two months, and you see how many things have changed,” Cuomo said. “I want to see what the infection rate is and what the disease is doing before we pull the trigger and make the decision.”

But he added: “If this continues across the country, kids are going to be home for a long time.”

The Education Trust-New York on Monday also released the results of an online poll of 800 New York parents conducted June 16-22 that showed they were displeased with the online learning.

Overall, 83% of parents said they were happy with their district’s response to the coronavirus, yet it was 10 percentage points less in low-income families.

But parent satisfaction with distance learning dropped from 57% in a poll the group did in March to 43% in the most recent survey this month.

“The decrease is also primarily driven by low-income families, who are much less likely to describe distance learning as successful (36%) than higher-income families (48%),” the group said.

Most parents responded that their largest concern is a fear their children will fall behind academically.

The poll found that parents said their top priority for this fall is ensuring their is extra support for students who may need it.


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