Public Advocate Calls For Expansion And Reform Of Remote Learning In Council Hearing

October 16th, 2020

Press Release

NEW YORK: Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams called on the city to expand and improve remote learning at today's City Council joint hearing of the Committees on Education and Health, arguing that as the city faces the potential of a second wave of COVID-19, the focus should be on remote learning rather than continuing to push for expanded in-person learning without adequate safety measures in place.

The Public Advocate, who has long been critical of the administration's planned re-opening in favor of a more methodical, staggered plan, discussed his bill to improve remote learning processes as over half of students to date have opted for fully remote education. The legislation, Intro 2058, would require the Department of Education ("DOE") to report student attendance throughout the previous week, when remote learning was utilized or when a combination of remote and in-person learning was utilized.

He argued that "Student engagement remains a problem because the DOE has still not provided every single student with a remote learning device... Monitoring student engagement is an essential way to determine the effectiveness of remote learning," and that "Tracking student attendance rate allows us to hold the DOE accountable for ensuring that our students have the ability to access all of their classes remotely." Public Advocate Williams also highlighted a bill from Council Member Mark Treyger, Chair of the Committee on Education, which would require the Department of Education to report on a series of metrics any time the Department is engaged in remote learning.

In closing, the Public Advocate asserted "The money and energy that the Administration is investing in this hybrid approach would be better spent towards improving remote learning, with a phased-in method coming at a later date when our schools have more staff, a standard universal guidance, and additional resources."

The Public Advocate's full statement is below and can be downloaded here.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION AND COMMITTEE ON HEALTHOCTOBER 16, 2020

Good morning, My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chairs Treyger and Levine for not only holding this very important hearing, but also for the stalwart leadership you both have shown throughout this pandemic. I want to thank the Speaker for his leadership, and I want to thank the Council for allowing me to speak on this important topic.

First, I do want to say and echo that I do understand the challenges of trying to educate 1.1 million students, the largest school system in the entire country, and I very much appreciate that the Chancellor himself and his staff have always availed themselves to me to answer questions. I want to make sure I say that at the outset. I have to say that looking at the decisions that we could have made - I always try to look at the tools that we have at the moment, and the decisions we can or cannot make - we have done abysmally when it comes to reopening schools, there's just no way around it. We could have done things so much differently, and given the choices we had, the resources we had, we couldn't have done it worse.  I also want to be clear that when I take a bird's-eye view and look at the Department of Education, the NYPD, the  Human Resources Administration, I cannot put it all on the heads of those agencies. I do want to tweak what the Speaker said a little bit; I do put the blame on one person: Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

The incompetency in decision-making is bar-none in what I've seen with certain decisions, especially around re-opening. No one except for the Mayor, and  maybe a few others, believed that it made sense to try to reopen, in-person, the largest school system in the country.  Nothing that has happened was not anticipated, and we went like a steam train to keep going. The people who are most affected are the people who are most affected throughout this pandemic even before.

There's a word I'm going to use, that I heard a lot when I was a young kid, which is hard-headed. It appears that the administration, and the mayor has been hard-headed to the people who are on the ground and saying what needs to be done. 

Last month, the Mayor delayed the start of in-person instruction on two different occasions. Eventually, schools with grades K through five and K through eight reopened at the end of September, and high schools and middle schools with grades six through eight reopened on October 1st. While this continuous display of a lack of coordination and organization on the part of the Administration is disappointing, it is not surprising. What is surprising about the Mayor's decision to delay the reopening for the second time was his reason for doing so - many schools did not have enough staff members to supervise the number of students who were about to enter the school buildings for in-person learning. It is inconceivable that the Mayor could have arrived at this decision in September, when his own Education Sector Advisory Council - a group made up of members he himself appointed - warned him of a teacher shortage four months prior. The Administration knew that this was going to happen, so they have no excuse - none - for being this unprepared and ill-equipped.

I am not the only person who has no confidence in this Administration's ability to reopen schools in a safe and sound manner. A couple of days before schools reopened, the union representing our City's principals called on the State to seize control of the school system from the Mayor. While I do not think we have reached a point where we need to cede control of our schools to the State's Department of Education, I understand the frustrations of these principals and I sympathize with them - I do wish the leadership of the UFT had made similarly strong comments. They have not been provided with enough resources, guidance, and staff to ensure a safe environment for in-person learning. One example is the fact that the Administration added 4,500 educators a week before reopening, when the principals' union said that they needed twice that amount to function. It is clear that we cannot rely on the Administration to provide adequate direction and support for our schools' staff.

As of now, remote learning remains our best option for school-based instruction, while we continue to open up in a phased approach. And while last Spring showed us the many shortcomings of the DOE in how it handled remote learning, my bill, Int. No.  2058, would attempt to address one of those issues - student engagement. Student engagement remains a problem because the DOE has still not provided every single student with a remote learning device. Providing devices to every student would not only benefit our efforts to close the digital divide in our City, but it would bring our student engagement rate closer to where it was pre-COVID. Monitoring student engagement is an essential way to determine the effectiveness of remote learning, which is why I introduced this piece of legislation. This legislation would require the DOE to report student attendance throughout the previous week, when remote learning was utilized, or when a combination of remote and in-person learning was utilized. The data would be disaggregated by school, school district, grade, race, individualized education plan status, multilingual language learner status, and English language learner status. This report is to be submitted to the Mayor, Speaker of the Council, myself as the Public Advocate, the School Diversity Advisory group, all Community Education Councils and be posted on the DOE's website- we also need to address the fact that everyone does not have the internet services needed.

Tracking student attendance rate allows us to hold the DOE accountable for ensuring that our students have the ability to access all of their classes remotely. I was watching Chair Treyger on NY1 when we finally got the data he'd been seeking for a while, and what we found is what we thought: the vast majority of people affected are Black and Brown. Schools that have over 50% Black and Brown students are doing eight times worse. Eight times. This is unacceptable. Can we imagine if we had taken all the energy and money that we wasted doing something that everybody told this Mayor we should not, and cannot do, and put it into getting the best remote system we could have, and then phased in. It is inconceivable that this is the decision that the Mayor made.  

I also want to take a moment to highlight the importance of Chair Treyger's bill, Int. No. 1615, which would require the DOE to report data to the Council concerning teacher retention and turnover. At a time when our school system is experiencing a teacher shortage, this legislation is essential. Perhaps what is most important about this bill is its task force provision, which requires the group to analyze the DOE's data and provide recommendations to address the issue. I hope that the DOE will actually utilize the recommendations issued by this task force - something that they clearly did not do with that of the Mayor's advisory group - to take substantial steps to retain its educators and provide them with the tools needed to navigate this tumultuous period. 

While I am glad to see New York working toward recovery after having been the epicenter of the epicenter of COVID-19, we must not use our City's low infection rate as a telltale sign that we can safely  reopen schools. The money and energy that the Administration is investing in this hybrid approach would be better spent towards improving remote learning, with a phased-in method coming at a later date when our schools have more staff, a standard universal guidance, and additional resources. Reopening  our school buildings before our educators were adequately prepared has been a disservice to our students, to the parents, to the entire city. Once again, I urge the Administration to focus on remote learning for the time being and delay in-person learning until our schools are ready. Once again - I just want to thank the Chancellor and the staff of the DOE, who I know have the best of intentions, who I know are doing the best they can given the circumstances that we have. But as the Public Advocate, as a person with a child in the public school system, I know that we made terrible decisions unnecessarily. There has to be an account for that, and we have to do better moving forward.

Thank you.

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