ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to “reimagine” the way school children are taught by increasing reliance on digital technology is getting a chilly reception from some educators.
Cuomo, a Democrat, has rankled some unionized teachers and others by saying that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic the state plans to work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to incorporate more distance learning in New York schools.
His suggestion comes amid what is both a public health crisis and an accompanying financial crisis that is expected to result in deep cuts to the budgets of New York’s 700 school districts. The state is facing a $13 billion deficit and Cuomo has signaled he will have to make cuts to schools and other services unless the federal government provides states with a massive injection of aid.
Speaking Tuesday in New York City, the governor suggested the traditional method of teaching has become antiquated in an era when communication is conducted across digital platforms,
“The old model of, everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom, and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms, why? With all the technology you have,” Cuomo said.
Niagara Falls City Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie said while high school students have demonstrated they can adapt to online classes, elementary school children have a more difficult time with the experience.
“We certainly think we have to reimagine things, and I understand the leverage point this crisis has put us in,” Laurrie said. “However, it is really important to get input from people in the field — people who know families and who know kids, and who know learning styles and know what works and what doesn’t.”
Though there is merit to the contention that schools will need to bring on more distance learning, it would have been more prudent to initially focus on plugging the gaps that exist in access to broadband technology in some upstate regions, said David Little, director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State.
“Nothing highlights this need more than this situation,” said Little, pointing out that public health concerns underscore the need to prepare for more disasters that could require social distancing.
The crisis, he noted, has highlighted the disparities in how education resources are distributed and how “we (in rural districts) rely so heavily on local funding from communities that didn’t have it before and sure as heck aren’t going to have it now, for a while at least.
“We have to get those areas up to speed and have some degree of equity in distributing our resources so they are capable of handling this type of situation,” Little added.
Rural communities outside Oneonta, Niagara Falls and Plattsburgh are among those where residents are acutely aware of New York’s digital divide, with access to cutting edge high-speed digital broadband is not always available as it is to residents of urban areas.
Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said the lack of broadband access is just one concern he expects to hear from residents of his district, but he also suggested many people will not want to abandon the traditional approach of teachers being in classrooms with their students.
“I’m a public school guy,” said Jones, noting he was not surprised Cuomo is getting pushback from opponents of privately-run charter schools that have been funded by the Gates Foundation.
Jones noted his 6-year-old daughter, a first-grader enrolled in pubic school, has missed being with her classmates during the current shutdown of school buildings.
“For a student to be well-rounded, you need that social aspect you get from in-person teaching,” the lawmaker said.
Cuomo called Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, “a visionary.” He also suggested the pandemic produces an opportunity to challenge the “status quo” when it comes to traditional classroom learning.
But his effort to sell the concept got an unfavorable review from the politically influential New York State United Teachers union.
“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT’s president. “Let’s secure the federal funding and new state revenues through taxes on the ultra-wealthy that can go toward addressing these needs.”
New York reported an additional 232 deaths from the virus Wednesday, bringing the overall fatality toll to 20,597.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org