Union officials and school district administrators are pushing back against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement of a partnership between the state and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to restructure New York’s education system in the wake of COVID-19.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta stated that remote learning “will never replace the important personal connection” built in the classroom between teachers and students. He said federal funding and state revenues from “taxes on the ultrawealthy” could address the needs of the state’s education system, along with adding teachers to the conversation.

“The Governors ‘Education Reimagined’ causes some concern,” says Penn Yan School Superintendent Howard Dennis. “Any time that changes to education are coming from people who do not work in education on a regular basis it is concerning. I hope that there will be plenty of opportunity for input from educators who have been living this experience for the last few weeks.  I also hope that it will not be mandated because not all systems are ready or at the same point for change. The districts in this area, including Penn Yan, have been working on the appropriate implementation of technology as a learning resource in a very purposeful way for the last four or five years.  Technology is not a substitute for the interaction of the classroom and the guidance of a highly qualified teacher.  We have learned many lessons from the last few weeks of at home learning and those prove that this works for some and not for others. You also know the challenges of reliable high speed internet connection in our area. The Governor’s comment that kids just sit in rows and the teacher sits in the front of the room and teaches proves to me that he is not in touch with present day classrooms, at least in Penn Yan and all of Yates County for that matter.  I have great concerns and I hope that decisions are made in an appropriate and purposeful way.”

Maura Benincasa Wolverton, Co-President of the Dundee Teacher’s Association replied, “When all of the COVID-19 crisis began, educators were thrust overnight into all or mostly online or remote teaching/learning for their students.  They rose to the occasion and jumped in with both feet.

“Technology has become a larger part of education these last years and is a great tool,” she adds. “However, reimagined to me is a system of pairing traditional in-person, teacher in the class with technology, and it must be equitable and accessible for all students.  Remote or online class can not replace traditional education, but done correctly it can enhance the system. This undertaking will evolve over many months/years and will be a challenge.” 

Tina Webber, President, Penn Yan Education Association, responded saying, “Governor Cuomo’s initial comments on Tuesday had educators across the state feeling simply livid.  This is because he seemed to be saying, at least at first, that distance learning was the vision for the future in New York State.  This suggestion, within days of his announcement of the sad news that we would not be able to safely return to our classrooms this academic year, was like a slap in the face!  The governor’s mention of working with the Gates Foundation also brought up immediate red flags, since educators in our state have seen some of the Foundation’s past projects in education not go so well.   We know from experience that their previous suggested top-down reforms have not incorporated the in-the-trenches views of teachers, let alone the opinions of our students and their parents.

“After his initial announcement about re-imagining education, it didn’t seem to take the governor long to back track, once the backlash started.  Within a day, he and his office staff were doling out some extra praise for teachers, and announcing that (in addition to the Gates Foundation) the state will actually be working with a “Re-Imagine Education Advisory Council.”  The Council will include a mix of educators, including Master Teachers, Superintendents, School Board Members and AFT President Randi Weingarten.  I know that these experts will do their best to represent educators across the state (including those of us in small rural schools like Penn Yan) and will make it clear that technology can never replace what we do.  Ultimately, my hope is that they are able to shine a light on how a lack of funding and inequities in access influence our ability to utilize remote learning in an emergency situation to provide an ideal education.  If they can do that, then perhaps improvements can be made as we continue to try to use technology as a bridge to returning to our classrooms full time. We would certainly appreciate that-as well as anything that makes using technology to supplement our invaluable live instruction easier, when we are back where we belong.  And, of course, “back where we belong” means physically with our students--providing them with the many lessons, social/emotional connections, services, and hugs that they deserve, and that no form of technology can ever replace.”

Cuomo first made the announcement in a press conference last Tuesday, singling out praise for the foundation. “I want to thank the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We’ll be working with them on this project. Bill Gates is a visionary in many ways, and his ideas and thoughts on technology and education he’s spoken about for years,” he said.