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Don’t need Gates Foundation to tell us schools need computers

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that he has enlisted the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in reimagining education in New York state, in light of the distance learning forced upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic. Honestly, though, how many New Yorkers would choose the founder of Microsoft as a reliable guide to tell us what our schooling should look like?

Everyone has different ideas about how to improve education. For example, we feel strongly that foreign languages should be taught all through elementary school, starting in kindergarten, since the human brain is particularly receptive to learning languages at a young age rather than the teenage years, when our brains have changed and language learning is harder.

We expect the Gates Foundation is likely to recommend more technology. We don’t need them to tell us that.

Differences aside, people should be able to agree that schools that had equipped their students with chromebooks or computer tablets were better prepared for the quarantine. In Saranac Lake, for instance, middle and high schoolers were on their second year of chromebooks all around, and education continued relatively seamlessly. In Albany, however, the Times Union reported that weeks went by without much teaching while the district pulled things together, tech-wise. This is going to have to become standard equipment at all schools.

A photo we published recently showed what the offline alternative looks like: At Petrova Elementary School in Saranac Lake, a hallway was lined with dozens of boxes full of manila envelopes, stuffed with printouts teachers had made for their students. These were being delivered to each student’s home by school bus drivers. This is an admirable, remarkable operation, but is it efficient and necessary? It seems like doing your taxes by pen on forms you get from the library.

Should all grades have chromebooks or tablets, starting in kindergarten, or should it begin a little later, maybe third grade? Educators are better qualified to answer that question than we are, but teachers and students everywhere should be able to hold classes remotely when they have to.

There is, of course, much disagreement over how to improve education in New York, and much of it comes down to taxes and spending. We agree that schools should be a top priority and that in many ways you get what you pay for, but there is also plenty of room to improve using the large amount of money New York already spends on schools.

The quarantine has opened up some common ground. Chromebooks and/or tablets seem like obvious needs. Let’s start there and see what else we can agree on.

(CORRECTION: The fifth paragraph of this editorial has been altered in light of new information from the Saranac Lake Central School District. An earlier version said Petrova Elementary School did not have chromebooks for all its students, but Superintendent Diane Fox says it does have one for every student in grades 1 to 12, and either a chromebook or a tablet for each kindergartner. She continued, “We didn’t initially send home Chromebooks for elementary students because they are not as self-sufficient on these devices as our middle and high school students and we were concerned with screentime. We also did not have a handle on the availability of service for our elementary students. Since the beginning of remote instruction, families could request a Chromebook for any elementary student. We have distributed 100s. Within the first week or two of the shutdown, the fifth-grade students received their Chromebooks and moved to remote instruction through Google Classroom. At this point, 3rd- and 4th-grade classrooms are also including remote instruction in their instruction plans. Packets are still needed. Students are receiving educational opportunities from all of their teachers, including special area staff. Some of this material is not appropriate in an online form. These packets also include personalized notes, supplies, and treats!”)

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