New analysis of school district reopening plans raises questions about district readiness to support all students in remote learning
The NY Equity Coalition calls on state leaders to take specific steps to ensure the quality of remote and blended learning
NEW YORK – As students across New York prepare to return to school in the coming weeks, a new analysis of 50 school district reopening plans raises questions about district readiness to support students equitably in a remote learning environment, even as many districts across the state plan to start the school year entirely online and poll results show that Black and Latinx parents and parents from low-income backgrounds disproportionately believe it is too soon for their children to fully return to school in-person.
While recognizing the hard work of teachers, school and district leaders, and other school personnel to prepare for the fall, the analysis found that in many cases district plans do not respond to the concerns raised by parents after last spring’s school closures – including for more live daily instruction and interaction with teachers; do not fulfill the requirements or recommendations in the state’s reopening framework; and do not ensure intensive, evidence-based support for students.
“This crisis has already worsened the pre-existing inequities in public education, and unless we get remote and blended learning right this fall, the opportunity gaps in our education system will continue to widen, with lifelong consequences for children,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust–New York. “We need to know what our education system is going to do differently this fall to ensure that the same students who have been underserved before the pandemic – and who had unfinished instruction in the spring when schools closed – will experience quality remote instruction when the new school year begins.”
The Education Trust–New York analyzed school district reopening plans submitted to the New York State Education Department by the 50 school districts serving the greatest number of students from low-income backgrounds. These school districts together enroll 1.4 million students, representing 56% of all students statewide, 72% of students from low-income backgrounds, 85% of Black students, 80% of Latinx students, and 86% of English learners.
The review of the school district reopening plans was based on equity criteria drawn from the requirements and recommendations in state guidelines and included the following categories:
- Providing equitable instruction and engaging all students;
- Meeting social-emotional needs;
- Supporting students with unique learning needs;
- Providing access to strong educators;
- Addressing the digital divide for families and educators;
- Adopting anti-racist policies and practices; and
- Improving family engagement and communication.
Every plan received a rating of “strong evidence,” “some evidence,” or “no evidence” on each criterion.
Across 25 criteria that can apply to remote learning (including both fully remote and blended models):
- None of the 50 school districts show strong evidence on at least half of the criteria;
- 11 districts show strong evidence on 10 to 12 of the criteria;
- 31 districts show strong evidence on 5 to 10 of the criteria; and
- 8 districts show strong evidence on fewer than 5 of the criteria.
In addition, 20 of the 50 school districts showed no evidence on at least a quarter of these 25 criteria. The criteria where districts most frequently showed no evidence in their plans addressed adopting anti-racist policies and practices, providing equitable instruction and engaging all students, and supporting students with unique learning needs.
The analysis identified bright spots across the district plans, including:
- Districts are taking steps to address students’ technology needs. All 50 district plans include some evidence or strong evidence of how the district will know which students need devices and internet access for remote learning and include strategies to provide them to at least some students.
- Districts recognize the importance of addressing students’ social-emotional needs. 92% of the 50 district plans show at least some evidence of how districts will identify and support the social-emotional needs of returning students.
- Districts are prioritizing family engagement. All 50 district plans include some evidence or strong evidence of a clear communication plan that incorporates multiple languages, dissemination of information through multiple means, and/or ways families can contact the school with questions.
- Districts are working to address the needs of students with disabilities. 76% of the 50 districts show strong evidence and an additional 16% of the districts show some evidence of how the unique needs of students with disabilities will be met.
Still, there remain major equity concerns:
- The quality of remote instruction remains a major uncertainty. Only 10% of the 50 districts have plans that include strong evidence of live daily instruction aligned with grade-level learning standards, while 34 of the 50 districts do not provide specific details about the frequency or duration of live remote instruction for all students during fully remote learning in their district plan. In addition, only 8% of the districts include strong evidence of multiple ways for students to participate in learning, with routine feedback on student assignments and support from teachers.
- Ambiguous curriculum can perpetuate longstanding inequities. Only 6% of the districts show strong evidence of instructional experiences that are inclusive, culturally responsive, consider the needs of all students, and adhere to established state regulations and guidelines.
- Daily teacher-student interaction may be rare. Although nearly all of the school districts (98%) include some evidence of regular substantive interaction between teachers and students in their plans, only 26% of the 50 districts describe how teachers and students will interact daily.
- Not all districts have plans to track and act on student engagement data. While nearly all of the school districts (94%) include some evidence of a plan to collect and report daily attendance, only 28% of the 50 districts describe how the district will track engagement, not just attendance, and use the data.
- Students may not receive daily check-ins from an adult in the school. 82% of the district plans show no evidence of how the district will assign each student an “ally” – such as a counselor, coach, social worker, psychologist, or other school staff in addition to teaching staff – who is responsible to check in on every student every day whether instruction is in-person, remote, or blended.
- Schools and districts may not know exactly what students need academically. Only 20% of the districts describe a locally determined formative or diagnostic assessment to identify individual student needs and how the information will be used to inform instruction.
A recent poll commissioned by Ed Trust–NY and conducted by Global Strategy Group found that fewer than half (47%) of Black parents and just 61% of Latinx parents in New York State said their child will attend school in-person this fall among parents given the option, compared to 74% of White parents, a disparity driven by greater fears among parents of color that their child or another family member will contract the coronavirus and less overall confidence in the education system. The disparity was also seen between parents living in low-income households and those from more affluent backgrounds.
State Policy Implications
The parent survey results, along with the reality that some school districts plan to start the school year fully online, make it clear that many students – especially Black and Latinx students and students from low-income backgrounds – are not going to be in traditional classrooms this fall and underscore the need for the state to ensure that all students have the opportunity to experience rigorous, high-quality instruction whether school is in-person, remote, or blended.
The civil rights, education, parent, and business organizations in The New York Equity Coalition call on state leaders to build on their strong framework for school reopening by taking specific steps to improve the quality of the remote and blended experience.
The coalition recommends that the state focus oversight on school districts where historically underserved groups of students are disproportionately enrolled and will participate in remote learning. In these districts, the coalition recommends that the state take additional steps to determine whether the district’s plan adequately addresses the following essential elements:
- Meeting specific minimum expectations established by the state for the amount of daily live instruction for all students by grade span, that is also recorded and made available to students online.
- Providing specific attention to the academic and social-emotional needs of the students and communities who were underserved before the pandemic and experienced disproportionate unfinished instruction as a result of school closures, including addressing how time – both the way the school day is structured and the use of extended learning time – and staff will be deployed to meet students’ needs remotely.
- Addressing high-quality remote curriculum, assignments, and tasks, and teacher professional learning and planning time to support successful implementation.
- Providing daily interaction with teachers, including feedback on assignments, and access to school counselors.
- Implementing plans for monitoring student engagement and assessing student learning throughout the year and how this data will be used to support students and adjust curriculum and instructional strategies, with specific attention to students who did not successfully engage in remote learning during the spring school closures.
- Knowing every student’s and teacher’s tablet, laptop, or other device and internet status and having a plan to ensure continuous access and support.
- Providing specific attention to adequately meet the heightened needs of students with disabilities, English learners, and students experiencing homelessness.
- Ensuring ongoing parent engagement remotely through virtual school-based management team and district stakeholder meetings.
- Offering guidance for parents – in their home language and preferred method of communication – on what their child should be learning at each grade level.
The coalition also recommends that the state require transparency on key measures of student engagement and support – with disaggregated data released at least monthly – and require school districts with low performance on any of these measures for any group of students to make specific improvements.
Additional coalition recommendations include strategies to expand promising remote learning models, help schools assess student progress and identify needs, support all educators’ transition to blended and remote learning, and help schools and community-based organizations support student learning.
“The reality is that students who were already being underserved by our education system are the ones who suffered most when schools closed because of the pandemic,” said Samuel L. Radford III, past president of the District-Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo and co-chairperson of We the Parents. “Parents all across the state have expressed serious concerns about their experiences with remote learning, including limited access to technology, lack of contact with their child’s teachers, and ineffective parent engagement, particularly in shared decision making. With some of New York’s largest school districts planning to start the school year entirely online, it is crucial that state and district leaders ensure that all students, particularly those most affected by the pandemic, have access to a high-quality remote learning experience and that plans are co-created with parent, teacher, and student voice through effective school-based planning and shared decision making.”
“As schools move rapidly toward resuming in the next few weeks, many uncertainties remain about health and safety, hybrid school schedules, and the continuation of virtual learning,” said Ramon Peguero, Esq., president and CEO of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families. “We must collectively remain committed to ensuring equitable access to rigorous, high-quality education, as well as responsive mental health services, for all of New York’s students. The Committee for Hispanic Children and Families (CHCF) joins The New York Equity Coalition in calling on the state to ensure that remote and blended learning models are consistently delivering high-quality and equitable opportunities and supports for all, with intentional focus on vulnerable student populations.”
“E4E-New York teachers have made it clear that a plan to provide students with the necessary learning tools is the number one thing districts can do in the event of extended school closings,” said Paula L. White, executive director of Educators for Excellence-New York. “These recommendations will ensure leaders craft plans that teachers and families can have full confidence in when so much else remains uncertain.”
“If we fail to address the concerns being raised by communities of color regarding school re-openings and lack of resources to ensure equitable access to remote learning, we will simply be compounding the effects of the pandemic on our children,” said Frankie Miranda, president of Hispanic Federation. “Though we recognize that teachers, counselors, and school administrators are working to ensure a safe return to the classroom, we know many Latino parents will choose remote learning for their children. We urge New York State to consider The New York Equity Coalition’s re-opening recommendations and to provide clear guidance to school districts to tackle the concerns of our community, particularly around access to internet and computer devices. Parents deserve to make a choice that will bring them peace-of-mind today while ensuring their kids get the education they are entitled to.”
For all of The Education Trust–New York’s school reopening resources, including the ability to search for any school reopening plan in the state, visit EdTrustNY.org/ReopeningStronger.