As schools across New York have shut their doors amid the coronavirus pandemic, district leaders have been consumed with ironing out how remote learning will work and how to get free meals to students who need them. Now another question looms: Will districts keeping their buildings closed past April 1 lose state funding if they don’t make up for lost classroom time?
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered all schools closed March 18-31 and has waived a state requirement for districts to make up those school days. But Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to close New York City school buildings as of March 16. They will remain shuttered through at least April 20 and, possibly, through the end of the academic year, the mayor has said.
State law requires school districts to hold 180 instructional days within a 10-month period in order to receive state funding. For every day districts don’t meet that threshold, they lose that proportion of their Foundation Aid, which is extra money districts receive for high-needs schools. Since March 23, city public school teachers have been teaching remotely, but it’s unclear whether those days will count toward the 180-day requirement.
As it stands, New York City would need state authorization to get those extra days off waived or risk losing portions of its Foundation Aid. City schools received $8.4 billion in Foundation Aid this fiscal year, which makes up most of the state money it receives. In total, state dollars made up 36% of the city’s budget for schools.
In an email last week, state spokesman Jason Conwall said Cuomo’s office plans to “re-evaluate the matter” closer to April 1.
New York City schools are “seeking further guidance from the state,” said department spokesperson Miranda Barbot.
“In the best interest of public health, we made the decision to move to remote learning until April 20th, before the State issued this guidance,” Barbot said in a statement.
Asked if distance-learning will count toward required instructional time, a spokesperson for the state education department referred Chalkbeat to the governor’s office, where press representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Last week, Michigan’s state education department decided that online instruction won’t count toward that state’s own 180-day requirement.
Ordering schools to reopen would seem to be a change in course for the Cuomo administration, which has significantly increased oversight over daily life in New York in recent weeks. Last week Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to close temporarily in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. But education observers are unsure of what Cuomo will do with schools past April 1, especially after he told CNN Monday night that he wasn’t sure closing schools was the best way to help stem the virus.
“If you now look at it, it didn’t make any sense to close the schools, send my kids home with me or older people, or with grandmothers who were vulnerable to this virus,” Cuomo told CNN. “And young people were then maybe bringing it into the house.”
The state should let districts know as soon as possible if they’ll need to make up additional days spent outside the classroom, Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy and communication at the state’s Council of School Superintendents. His organization has “no sense whatsoever” what the governor’s office plans to do, he said, noting: “It would be very helpful to school districts to know this week if the closure period is going to be extended, as opposed to being told Monday or Tuesday next week, ‘Hey, get your schools up and going.’”
Another question, Lowry said, is whether districts would have to cancel scheduled breaks, such as spring break, and use unused snow days to begin making up school days.
Whatever the state’s decision, Lowry said, “I don’t see how you penalize districts who acted in good faith with the executive order before the 18th. In some cases, there was tremendous pressure from parents for districts to close.”
Re-opening schools prematurely or telling districts they may be penalized for staying closed would be counterproductive, said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
“A misguided reopening of schools, based on the state requirement, won’t fulfill the goal of the initial closures — to stem the pandemic,” Bloomfield said.