COVID-19 turned education upside down. Can schools handle a second hit?

Sophie Grosserode
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

COVID-19 killed tens of thousands in the Northeast, caused massive unemployment and wrecked the economy. In an ongoing series of stories, the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group examines what the government got wrong in its response to the virus, what policies eventually worked — and why we remain vulnerable if the coronavirus strikes harder in the fall.

Much like New York’s coronavirus outbreak, school closures began slowly and snowballed all at once.

On March 4, Hastings-on-Hudson and Mount Vernon became two of the first school districts to close schools for two days to sanitize them. 

On March 10, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued the first state-mandated school closure for schools inside a New Rochelle “containment area.”

On March 16, Cuomo closed all New York schools for two weeks, extending the closure by subsequent two-week intervals until May 1, when he shuttered them for the rest of the academic year.

The questions surrounding closing schools were basic at the start. Was it even possible to teach elementary school online? Who would watch children if their parents couldn’t stay home? What about students who rely on school meals?

School buses line up in front of New Rochelle High School, as students get ready for dismissal, March 10, 2020.

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Things quickly got more complicated. Schools had to grapple with how to go beyond review into actual teaching, how to grade students, how to care for students who could not be seen face-to face, and more. 

The school year ended in mid-June, but there was no time to rest. Districts dove right into planning for the upcoming year, developing plans for several scenarios. Cuomo is expected to say by Aug. 7 whether schools can reopen in September. 

Even if schools open, every educator knows their buildings could have to close at a moment’s notice if another outbreak hits. They have to be prepared.

A group of kids wear face masks as they walk in downtown Hastings as schools are closed in Hastings in concerns of coronavirus on March 5, 2020.

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What worked

New York has almost 700 school districts, and all were left largely to their own devices during the transition to online learning. A strategy that draws praise in one district might provoke outrage in another, and some of the things that worked well in districts with means were impossible in districts without.

The first thing schools had to address was the basics.

Over 1 million public school students in New York qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to 2018 data from the state, and Cuomo’s initial executive order closing schools statewide required districts to develop a plan for delivering meals. 

Maria Castillo, a lunch monitor at the Edison Elementary School in Port Chester, N.Y., hands a bagged lunch to Aranza Arteaga, 4, March 16, 2020. With public schools closed due to the coronavirus, several schools in Port Chester distributed free lunch to students.

Districts rose to the challenge, most implementing a grab-and-go system for families to get meals. Some districts, like Yonkers, extended their programs into the summer. Yonkers is providing meals at 10 locations through the middle of August, and everyone under 18 in the city is eligible.

After food, the next huge issue was hardware. How were schools going to teach students who didn’t have computers at home? 

In districts with the means to do it, getting technology to students was a success. An analysis of district plans by the nonprofit Education Trust-New York found that 30% of districts in the state indicated they were providing devices to all students, while 67% provided devices to some.

Mount Vernon City School District faculty members distribute laptops to students in need for electronic learning during the coronavirus pandemic April 1, 2020 at Holmes Elementary School in Mount Vernon.

New Rochelle began signing out Chromebooks within a few days. Mount Vernon schools reached out to the community for donations and held multiple distribution days, equipping hundreds of students with devices.

In the short term, internet providers extended their help. In March, Altice USA offered 60 days of free Optimum Internet. Charter, the parent company of Spectrum, did the same. But several communities are still trying to line up affordable wifi for all.

Over weeks, many suburban districts were able to utilize online platforms to deliver lessons, hold some live classes, and generally make the online school day more closely reflect an in-person experience.

The same Education Trust analysis found that 71% of all districts reported providing devices to all teachers. In addition, many districts made major strides in helping teachers improve their tech skills through the spring.

A number of districts did not begin online learning immediately, but used their "snow days" to buy time to prepare and train staff.  

Carolyn McGuffog

In Greenburgh-North Castle, a special act district based in Westchester, Superintendent Carolyn McGuffog said the district wasn’t using a specific online platform before closing. So they got staff up to speed on Google’s educational tools within weeks. 

Students and teachers weren’t the only ones interacting with districts online. Many districts brought their online communication with families to a new level. White Plains Superintendent Joseph Ricca held a daily Facebook livestream to update the community for months, while other school chiefs took similar approaches.

Schools could no longer rely on classroom teachers to be the bridge between district and families. Live announcements, Q&As, and even storybook readings became popular sights on district Facebook pages. 

What went wrong

When schools first closed, they were told they needed to provide meals, arrange childcare for first responders and healthcare workers, and submit plans to the state outlining "continuity of instruction." Beyond that, there wasn't much guidance on how districts should educate students remotely. 

Sebastian Sledge, 13, and his sister Adelaide, 10, do school work in the back of Penny Lick Ice Cream Co., their mother's ice cream shop in Hastings-on-Hudson, April 20, 2020. With schools closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the two kids, along with their older sister, Maddie, 16, often come to the shop with their mother and do their eLearning in a back room.

A lack of clear expectations and metrics led to disparities across and even within districts. Some students reported having more work than ever before, while others were sleeping into the late afternoon without much reason to rise sooner.

While many districts were able to provide technology to all that needed it, others were not. Students left without devices or internet access often worked off of paper review packets and talked to teachers on the phone.

Face-to-face time with teachers was a contentious issue. Many parents expected that their children would sit through a normal class schedule on their computers, something that was very rare. 

“We had some parents asking questions, essentially when is my kid going to have online school, and I said, it's not going to be online school,” Hendrick Hudson Superintendent Joseph Hochreiter said in April. 

Superintendent Joseph Hochreiter, photographed in his office at Hendrick Hudson School District office in Montrose on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.

Schools also faced steep challenges in providing special education services remotely. The state Education Department said in a March memo that schools had to provide services "to the greatest extent possible." But many of the therapies students receive in school require hands-on contact and can't be replicated in a remote environment. 

Donna Fascaldi, a special education advocate who is on the board of the Clarkstown school district's special education PTA, said in March that many students with disabilities would not have their needs met during the shutdown. 

"Many districts will say that [they] did the best they could and may try to get out of providing compensatory services,” Fascaldi said.

But even in districts with the best resources and circumstances for special and general education students, there came a key realization about online schooling: it required parents to be available to help their children, especially younger children.

When schools shut down, so did childcare facilities. But no childcare was provided for most parents who had to work, remotely or out of the home, as they suddenly found their children home every day.  

What schools need for a second wave

All of New York’s regions currently meet Gov. Cuomo’s metrics for reopening schools, and hopes are high that schools will be given the green light to reopen their buildings in some capacity this September.

But the possibility looms that COVID-19 numbers could spike, leaving schools shuttered. Even if there is a return to school in September, an outbreak could shut down any building, and a rise in the number of positive tests could close an entire region.

The state is requiring districts to plan for not only a reopening of schools, on a full-time and part-time basis, but for a return to all-remote instruction.

“Remote is a part of our world no matter what,” said Bedford Interim Superintendent Joel Adelberg. 

“We have to do much more in a remote environment, if that's what we're required to do, than we did in the spring….There has to be a reason to get up in the morning.”

Requirements and guidelines from the State Education Department require schools to develop ways to take attendance in a remote environment, and the state says they must provide “substantive daily interaction” between students and teachers. A key to doing this is technology.

All school districts are required to take an inventory of their students’ access to devices and internet. The state says that districts should provide access to technology for students that need it “to the extent practicable.”

The state Board of Regents said in their July meeting that such access is “essential” to equity moving forward. They also acknowledged that districts that cannot provide technology to all students are likely those with the most students in need.

“To me, the only way this is going to work is if every kid has a device and there's [Internet] access [everywhere],” Regent Roger Tilles said. 

The technological divide hints at a major problem facing schools as they move into the new year: funding. There is still no word on whether a federal bailout will be coming, and Cuomo has maintained that state aid to schools could be cut by up to 20% if it doesn’t.

Funding is crucial not only to helping schools face a second wave but to making sure that a school isn’t where a second wave breaks out. The state’s guidance suggested schools provide a mask per week to students and five per week to teachers. 

Districts are also looking to provide gloves, face shields and plastic dividers. Some are ordering tents to hold classes outdoors, and others are hoping to equip their classrooms with cameras and microphones for hybrid learning.

Such steps come at a cost — perhaps tens of thousand of dollars for face coverings alone. But they could be essential in preventing the very outbreaks that closed schools in the first place.

Sophie Grosserode covers education. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @sdgrosserode. Check out our latest subscription offers here