Protesters disrupt Regents meeting over new vaccination mandate

Regents discuss study of schools with above average graduation rates for students of color
A group protesting the state's new vaccination mandate congregates outside the office where the Regents were meeting.
A group protesting the state's new vaccination mandate congregates outside the office where the Regents were meeting.

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ALBANY — As the state Board of Regents on Monday tried to kick off their regular meeting, hordes of protesters sought to turn their attention to a different topic: the state’s new vaccination mandate.

Hundreds of parents and children descended on the state Education Department building on Monday morning, protesting the state’s newest vaccination requirements, which they argue are infringing on their family choices and barring their children from returning to school.

While the issue was not on the board’s agenda – and the Regents don’t have the authority to grant the reprieve the protesters are seeking – the protests were enough to delay the start of the Regents meeting for nearly an hour.

Crammed into the hall dividing the Regents members from their meeting space, the protesters sang and chanted, grasped American flags and protest signs. “Let us go to school. Let us go to school,” they said.

The law, passed last legislative session, eliminated the religious exemption for vaccinations and came as the state grappled with a measles outbreak, linked to children who were not vaccinated. Students have 30 days after entering school to demonstrate they have received the necessary immunization to remain in school.

Once the meeting started, the protesters continued to chant from the hallway while others banged on the windows of the meeting room from outside. At one point during the meeting, a parent inside the meeting room stood up to express her frustration with the vaccination requirement.

“This is not on our agenda,” Chancellor Betty Rosa said pointedly. “We have our work to do.”

“We need help,” the woman said. “We need you to help us.”

Model schools

After working through the delays, the Regents discussed a study of a group of schools that are graduating male students of color at far higher rates than state averages.

As part of the state’s My Brother’s Keeper program, which strives to improve academic and life outcomes for young men of color, a team of experienced educators analyzed 10 schools across the state that had registered graduation rates for young men of color well above the state – where about 70 percent of all black students graduated in the 2017-2018 school year. The model schools all graduated 76 percent or more of its male students of color.

“What we have here, I would say, is very clear evidence that not only can it be done, it is being done,” Penny Ciaburri, a consultant who worked on the study, said of improving graduation rates and other outcomes.

The study’s findings focused largely on the schools’ overall educational culture. The successful schools fostered high expectations and supportive environments for students. The schools also took a systematic approach in monitoring student progress, intervening when students showed signs of falling behind, the researchers found. The schools also offered students extensive before and afterschool programming, with some students pending as much as 12 hours at school.

“(Schools need) the right staff in the right positions with the right thinking,” Ciaburri said. “The culture and expectations are critical… that’s what sustains the long-term results.”

The Regents said they want to do more to translate the finding from the successful schools into statewide policy, providing the resources for other districts to replicate the successes.

“We talk about culture, but we don’t talk about how to build culture,” Regent Lester Young said. “Successful schools have a culture where relationships exist between and among staff, between and among parents, between and among students, where young people aren’t given a chance to fail.”

In other business Monday, the Regents were updated on the education department’s plans for a major rethink of the state’s graduation requirements. In July department staff outlined a plan to establish a “blue ribbon commission” tasked with making recommendations for changes to the state’s graduation requirements, including the potential to scrap or rework the Regents exit exams necessary for earning a diploma.

The original timeline envisioned a yearlong process, with the commissioner reporting back around fall 2020, but on Monday department staff set out a timeline that would extend those recommendations as much as another year.

“It was a little ambitious last time, so we slowed our roll,” Kimberly Young Wilkins, assistant commissioner for innovation and school reform, said of of the earlier timeline.

The Regents meeting was also the first since former Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia resigned at the end of last month. The board formally appointed Beth Berlin, longtime deputy commissioner, as interim commissioner.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated the position that Beth Berlin was appointed to at Monday’s meeting. She was appointed interim state education commissioner.

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