Last Tuesday, State Senator John Liu, chair of the State Senate’s Committee on New York City Education, organized a virtual town hall with a half-dozen other state lawmakers. More than 350 people watched the Facebook Live stream, while more than 200 people signed up to speak.
Liu noted that while the city’s Department of Education (DOE) rolled out distance learning quickly without any opportunity to plan in advance, many parents have brought up problems that need to be addressed. The town hall provided an opportunity for parents to provide feedback, which will be sent to the DOE.
“It’s time for us to examine what went well and what could have gone better,” he said, “so we can learn lessons from this.”
Legislators said they have heard a variety of issues from parents, including slow internet speeds, lack of laptops and the challenges of providing counseling. State Senator Brian Kavanagh said he’s also concerned about students who will enter the school system this fall.
“We’ve had particular concerns in my district about how students with special needs are navigating the challenge or remote learning, and whether the DOE’s plans and approach to that as the crisis has unfolded has been adequate to those needs,” he added. “There’s a sense they haven’t been.”
Parent speakers, including those who currently serve on Community Education Councils (CEC), asked for more transparency and communication from the DOE. Adriana Aviles, president of CEC 26 in Queens, said the department needs to better inform families during the pandemic.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “We only know after the fact.”
Others were upset about the DOE’s new grading policy for remote learning. In late April, Chancellor Richard Carranza announced that teachers will base students’ final grades on a “holistic review” of their progress before and after distance learning.
Attendance will not factor into the grades, and no student will receive a failing final grade.
Elementary school students will receive final grades of either “Meets Standards” or “Needs Improvement,” while middle school students also have the option of “Course in Progress.” The existing grading scale in high schools will continue to apply, but no student will be issued a failing grade.
Phil Wong, president of CEC 24, called the chancellor’s new grading policy a “smokescreen.” He accused the mayor and chancellor of wanting to drop letter grades permanently, removing screening of middle schools and “ultimately, to remove all testing.”
“This is a complete dismantling of the current school system,” Wong said. “Doing this in the midst of a pandemic is a disgrace and a clear abuse of power.”
Rocky Bonanno, a Queens parent, urged the DOE not to make any changes to procedures and protocols for school admissions across all grades while school instruction is disrupted by the crisis.
“Why not keep the status quo on admissions, giving stressed students and parents one less thing to deal with while remote learning is going on,” he said. “Let’s keep the admission process unchanged as we strive to gain normalcy in our lives.
“The pandemic is not a time for wide sweeping changes to admissions or grading policies, whether they’re temporary or not,” Bonanno added. “We have enough to deal with already.”
David Oh, another Queens parent, blasted the mayor and chancellor for their “incompetence and pettiness.” He said the remote learning setup is “disastrous” for parents, teachers and students alike.
Oh called for maintaining educational standards even under a distance learning model. He said the grading policy was “poorly thought out” and did not rely on community input.
“We need to be raising educational standards for everybody, not lowering them,” he said.
The Queens parent asked the lawmakers to prevent DOE from taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation to make changes that would “destroy our schools.”
“I know that taxpaying parents are leaving New York City and New York State,” he said, “and this dysfunction in education will only further accelerate this exodus.”
Some parents at the town hall spoke about the inequities that have been exposed and exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.
Tajh Sutton, president of CEC 14 and an alumna of Brooklyn Technical High School, said this is an opportunity to rethink what education looks like and what students should get out of it.
“It should not be competition with one another for the best grades and best schools, because all schools should be fully funded, equitable and well resourced,” she said. “That way, it won’t matter what school in the district your child goes to because it will have what it needs.”
Eunbi Lee, an elementary school teacher and adjunct professor at Queens College, said the disparities among students have been highlighted in a way “that is now impossible to deny.”
She said while some of her students have logged on everyday and have had stable Wi-Fi, one student did not have a device for a month and no Wi-Fi or books at home. Lee said she had to order books from Amazon and ship them to his house.
Some of her college students have lost loved ones to COVID-19. She described how students would email her profusely to apologize about late assignments.
“This is a call for change,” she said. “It’s a wake-up call that our normal was never good enough.”
Lee said this is a chance to change the education system so it’s more equitable for all. She implored the legislators to trust teachers and involve them in the process.
“This is an opportunity to add more voices of educators on the ground who face this heartbreaking reality day in and day out,” she said. “Our voices matter.”