ALBANY -- The Board of Regents on Monday continued to grant regulatory relief to school districts and educators grappling with school closures, remote education and social distancing rules.
The board approved a raft of emergency regulations at its monthly meeting Monday, including changes that freeze the state's school accountability system, establish a one-year emergency certification for prospective teachers unable to take certain tests and modify rules around students earning course credits.
The emergency regulations, similar to an earlier batch of changes the Regents approved last month, come in response to the myriad of challenges districts and educators face. Countless state mandates and rules have been overturned by the pandemic response; testing center closures, for example, have made it impossible for some prospective teachers to take all the assessments that are part of the certification process.
The changes to daily school life, along with the cancellation of annual state tests, has turned this year's school data into an anomaly that state officials don't plan to use in making determinations about whether schools are classified as needing additional monitoring from the state. Those determinations, which include schools in Schenectady, Gloversville and Amsterdam, will be effectively frozen without measures from this school year being used in those state listings.
The regulatory changes also allow for students to earn a course credit even if they have not finished the entire unit of study due to the pandemic, so long as the student meets the standards that were taught in the class. The change means that students can earn credit for a class even if the class didn't cover all the material typically taught in the course. The changes included a codification of waivers to the state's graduation requirements, allowing students to earn a diploma even if they haven't passed all of their Regents exams as is typically required.
Shortly after school buildings closed in March, districts were required to submit plans to the state Education Department detailing how they plan to continue instruction remotely as well as provided meal and child care to those in need. Districts on Monday were required to update those plans with more details about how they plan to continue remote instruction for the remainder of the school year.
With Gov. Andrew Cuomo extending his order closing school facilities through the remainder of the academic year, the Board of Regents on Monday also shifted its focus to laying the groundwork for when schools do reopen.
State education officials last week announced plans to establish a task force of teachers, school and district leaders and others who would develop recommendations for reopening schools – whenever that may be.
“We are in a situation we know we can only solve through all of our talents and all of our commitment,” said Betty Rosa, the state's education chancellor.
Rosa said the Regents were establishing a “framework” to enable participation in the reopening task force, starting with regional conversations before establishing the committee. The committee would then make recommendations to the governor's own committee on reopening the state and economy.
During a press conference on Monday, Cuomo alluded to the complexity of the problem districts face in reopening schools, referring to the difficulty of creating social distance on a school buses and in classrooms. Cuomo said districts will be required to submit reopening plans that detail how they plan to maintain social distancing protocols, plans that must be approved by the state. He said district would receive guidance on developing those plan, while acknowledging schools present particular challenges to social distancing.
“It's going to be easier said than done, especially for a school,” he said. “The problem is the gathering, a school is a gathering.”
But the budget prospects of districts preparing to reopen school buildings while continuing remote instruction continues to look bleak. State budget officials are currently planning for over $8 billion in funding reductions in aid to localities, a massive state funding category that includes funding for school districts, state officials told the Regents. A plan detailing those cuts are expected around May 15, potentially outlining major reductions in aid to every district in the state. Meanwhile, school districts are expected to hold budget and school board votes by mail on June 9.
Members of the Board of Regents lamented the difficult situation facing districts not sure what funding level they can confidently plan for next year.
“There's a budget vote coming up and the budgets being presented there is so much uncertainty here,” said Regent Frances Wills, who joined the board last month and represents the lower Hudson Valley.
At least one board member adopted an even more dire outlook.
“I don't know how school districts are going to survive this, frankly,” said Regent Beverly Ouderkirk, who represents a district that covers the Capital Region and the North Country.