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Buffalo Public Schools to start school year with remote-only instruction

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
The Buffalo Board of Education voted unanimously in support of a proposal for the district to start the 2020-2021 school year with remote-only instruction during a virtual meeting Wednesday night.

Buffalo Public Schools will join dozens of other city school districts like Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia in starting the 2020-2021 school year fully remotely. The Buffalo school board unanimously approved the proposal from Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash during a virtual meeting Wednesday night.

The new reopening plan calls for the district to assess how the year is going and consider transitioning to a hybrid model of partial in-person learning about four to six weeks after school starts. Cash said this was likely the most difficult decision of his educational career but that it’s necessary to ensure the safety of students, staff and the wider community.

“I want to be clear that Buffalo Public Schools and many of the large urban school systems in the country, we have a different kind of worry that COVID-19 is teaching us,” Cash said, noting that 80% of BPS students are children of color. “Largely Black and brown children and families, in high-poverty communities: We are finding that we suffer in our communities at a disproportionate level—severely disproportionate level—from the effects and impact of COVID-19.”

Cash also referenced a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found that children of color are more likely to get severe symptoms of COVID-19 and require hospitalization if they contract the virus compared to their white peers. Hispanic children are about eight times as likely to be hospitalized as white children, while Black children are five times as likely, according to the report.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash (top, center) addresses the Buffalo Board of Education and Buffalo Public Schools staff during a virtual meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 19.

Meanwhile, Chief Academic Officer Anne Botticelli said students and families can expect a much more rigorous remote learning experience this fall compared to the difficult, at times chaotic situation they were thrown into last spring.

“Some parents maybe have an impression of what this could be like based on their spring experience, and we’ve put a lot more structure in place to support students,” Botticelli said. “So, I think that they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Those supports, she said, will include more synchronous—in other words, live—teaching and fewer learning platforms for students and parents to navigate: The district will use Schoology as its exclusive platform for attendance, submitting assignments and more and Microsoft Teams for video conferencing, including full classroom-style instruction, small group lessons and drop-by office hours.

Botticelli also said older students will receive a daily schedule comparable to what they would normally receive that will indicate which periods will be synchronous (i.e. live teaching) or asynchronous (e.g. a lesson they can complete on their own schedule or teacher office hours).

While the teachers’ union and district officials still need to settle the details of what remote instruction will look like and how much instruction teachers will be required to provide, President of the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF) Phil Rumore signaled his agreement with the plan to start school remotely shortly after it was confirmed Wednesday.

“It’s a good decision because as much as the teachers want to be back with the students and the students want to be back with the teachers, and the parents are feeling really stressed out, it is the best thing, I think, for the safety and well-being of the students, parents and staff,” Rumore said.

The district’s next meeting with the BTF is scheduled for Friday.

Cash had previously sought a delayed start to instruction in order to give teachers two weeks of professional development time to work on remote learning at the beginning of the school year, telling WBFO last week that the regularly-scheduled two days of professional development plus one day to set up classrooms would be “completely inadequate for the condition of COVID that we're in.” The state education department, however, did not approve the district’s request for the waiver it required to provide less than 180 days of classroom instruction.

The current plan will give teachers three days of professional development from Sept. 1-3 and one day for classroom set-up on Sept. 4 before remote instruction starts on Sept. 8.

Superintendent Cash also addressed a “looming fiscal crisis” for the district Wednesday. He said BPS will have to make at least $50 million in budget cuts this year. Some board members noted that the district will save money on utilities and transportation by having fewer or no students in physical school buildings, and Cash said he is also prepared to bring a proposal to the board to officially cancel fall sports.

“We’re not going to be able to do everything that we’ve always done in the past because we won’t be able to afford it,” Cash said, adding that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo should have made a statewide decision about fall sports.

Several board members also raised questions about the persistent child care challenges that working parents will continue to face with a remote start to the school year.

“While I fully support you, Dr. Cash, and I think that you’re making the right decision, it’s still an enormous amount of—it’s a challenge for parents to figure out how to do this,” said North District Representative Hope Jay.

Cash, district staff and board members also plan to hold a press conference at Buffalo City Hall at 9 a.m. Thursday morning in order to share more information with the public.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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