No technology can replace schools: CNY teachers, parents react to Cuomo

May 8, 2020

New York State governor Andrew Cuomo holds a press briefing updating the states response to the coronavirus
Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks about the coronavirus pandemic during a visit to Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, Tuesday April 28, 2020. Cuomo says remote learning may be a permanent part of education after the pandemic. Scott Schild | sschild@syracuse.com

By Mark Weiner

Joyce Suslovic says she’s always innovating and thinking of new and inclusive ways to teach — even in her 41st year in a Central New York classroom.

That’s why she took it personally this week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested that remote learning could become a permanent part of life for New York students after the coronavirus pandemic.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“It was like a gut punch when he spoke about online learning,” said Suslovic, who teaches U.S. history at Henninger High School in Syracuse.

She questioned why Cuomo would call teachers, classrooms and school buildings an “old model” that needs to be reimagined with technology at the forefront.

“If we can re-open business, we can open schools again,” Suslovic said of post-pandemic life in New York state. “We can reinvent a lot of things. But I was hoping we would reinvent a lot of things that would be more hospitable and inviting to students.”

Suslovic is among hundreds of New York teachers, parents, students and education experts who took to social media this week to share their outrage over Cuomo’s comments Tuesday during his daily news briefing about the pandemic.

“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,” Cuomo said. “Why? With all the technology you have?”

Cuomo announced the state will partner with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a technology-focused plan for post-pandemic education in New York, where schools have been closed since March to slow the spread of the virus.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Cuomo said the initiative will study how to use remote learning in bigger ways in the future. He didn’t rule out reopening schools in the fall.

Now 72 hours later, Cuomo’s office and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have offered few details about exactly what the governor wants to accomplish.

The state Education Department declined to comment on Cuomo’s proposal and referred reporters to the governor’s office. Cuomo’s office would not provide any additional details about the initiative.

The Gates Foundation declined a request from syracuse.com | The Post-Standard for an interview. Instead, the foundation issued a two-sentence statement.

“The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed to work with New York state on its efforts to ensure equitable access to education for its students in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement said. “We will provide further details as they become available.”

Some of Cuomo’s friends and foes seemed stunned by his suggestion that in-person schools could be obsolete.

“I can’t believe I even need to say this, but our kids belong in school,” Assemblyman Brian Kolb, R-Victor, said Thursday.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“They should be making friends,” Kolb said. “They should be working together to solve problems. They should be playing sports together, making music together and learning life skills together. To suggest otherwise is completely out of touch.”

After pushback from teachers, parents and education experts, Cuomo’s top aide appeared to backtrack on the governor’s comments.

“Teachers are heroes & nothing could ever replace in-person learning — COVID has reinforced that,” Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa wrote on Twitter.

“The re-imagine education task force focuses on using technology most effectively while schools are closed & to provide more opportunities to students no matter where they are,” DeRosa wrote, without elaborating.

The lack of a clear message from the governor’s office concerns Najah Zaaeed, a mother of six from Syracuse who has three school-age children from age 7 to 11.

Zaaeed, who teaches at SUNY Oswego, said Cuomo should have been more careful and specific when he talked about the possibility of a larger commitment to using technology outside the classroom.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“This is a very sensitive time for people across the nation, and more so for people in New York,” Zaaeed said. “Everything is immediately taken at value, and sometimes that can be very emotional. We need to improve our school systems, but this method might not be the right approach.”

DeRosa’s tweet also did little to reassure teachers like Suslovic, who earned a reputation for innovation while teaching generations of Syracuse students, including two who now serve on the Syracuse Common Council.

Suslovic broke the traditional classroom model years ago. She sits with students in a circle and engages them in conversation. She encourages students from far-flung countries to take turns bringing in favorite home-cooked meals for “lunch club.” She uses the opportunity to teach about civics and community.

“There’s nothing like having one-on-one conversations with students and social interaction with people,” Suslovic said. “There’s nothing like engaging a student in conversation and saying, ‘What do you think?’ in the context of education. I have a lot of students who are new Americans, which is fascinating.”

Suslovic said she continues to engage students online during the pandemic. But some lower-income students face obstacles to remote learning, such as access to reliable home internet connections.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

To help her students keep up, Suslovic drives to student homes and drops off course work to those who can’t access what she posts online.

For students who help care for younger siblings or who have other distractions at home, Suslovic allows them to call in answers to course work by telephone at night.

It’s precisely that kind of interaction that can never be replaced through remote learning, said Phil Cleary, who teaches pre-school special education in the North Syracuse Central School District.

“Technology is a great tool,” said Cleary, a teacher for 28 years and vice president of the district’s teacher’s union. “We’re open to new things. But it can’t replace the in-person experience with teachers.”

Cleary has been teaching online and posting educational videos he makes for students on his YouTube channel during the coronavirus pandemic. But he said it’s not enough to establish and maintain the relationships with students that he develops in person.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“No amount of technology can replace a kid giving me a high five, giving me a hug when things went right, or feeling reassured when I help wipe away a tear,” Cleary said.

Before the pandemic, schools and educators across the nation had been raising awareness about the need for schools to help children develop their social and emotional skills, he said.

“Kids that feel good about themselves are more likely to do well in their studies,” Cleary said. “Those connections are best built in person with teachers and groups of students. Right now, the mental health of students is of great concern to us. Schools are not just a place for kids to go and sit in front of teachers.”

Lindsey Lawson, a senior at Cazenovia High School, said she learned long ago that schools are about much more than teachers and classrooms.

The governor’s emphasis on remote learning would “strip away the basic elements of learning,” Lawson said.

“At Cazenovia High School, I learned not only in the classroom, but also during every second of the in-betweens,” Lawson said. “Debate, discussion, the classroom setting, and the unity found in human connections will be lost. Not to mention, sports and extracurriculars would be pushed to the wayside.”https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Lawson, an All-CNY basketball and volleyball standout, is headed to Harvard University this fall.

Samantha Pierce, a Syracuse mother of five with two special needs children in city schools, said she worries what would happen to her children if Cuomo moves forward with a permanent remote-learning plan.

“I do know we’re in time of transition right now and we have to re-think how we do a lot of things,” Pierce said. “And when these things happen, people on the margins tend to be left out of the conversation. That’s a big concern of mine. Often, the voices of parents or students in special education are not adequately represented.”

Pierce, president of the Syracuse chapter of Parents for Public Schools, said the governor and his education task force should include parents like herself in any plan to reform education in the state.

She, too, worries that the social and emotional needs of students after the pandemic will be lost in any push to expand remote learning.

“That was a conversation we were having before the pandemic and it’s an even more important conversation to have now,” Pierce said.

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