How the private sector can help NYC schools cope with COVID-19

How can the private sector help NYC schools?
How can the private sector help NYC schools?
Ingus Kruklitis/Shutterstock
How can the private sector help NYC schools?

How the private sector can help NYC schools cope with COVID-19

Sharing facilities and expertise could help students weather the pandemic.
July 6, 2020

New York City public school students are going back to school in eight weeks. Yet there is no plan in place to reduce transmission of the coronavirus during in-school learning, and virtual education this spring proved to be wildly uneven and often ineffective. Vision and action are called for. This is the moment to call on the private sector to partner with the mayor and the New York City Department of Education.

Certainly, the primacy of keeping students, educators and other school workers safe outweighed the need for planning how students would learn from March-June. Distance learning presented myriad challenges, as outlined during the City Council Education Committee hearing on May 27: lack of wifi access, not enough iPads, limited access to technology support, computer skills and language barriers. The barriers are even more complex for students with special needs.

If decision-making and resource allocation is left solely to the city Department of Education and the mayor, we will lose another year of instruction and opportunity, adversely impacting a generation of young people. It’s time for all sectors of the city to focus on its students in a massive call to action, a mix of a wartime civilian corps and the top-down business-led campaign that brought New York City out of debt in the 1970s.

When we founded PENCIL – Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning – in 1995, it was the beginning of a wave of private sector investment in New York City public schools. Thousands of individuals entered the schools as “Principal for a Day” over the next 10 years, and remained as long-term partners. Executives became management consultants to principals, and dispatched expertise to meet specific needs such as budget management or labor relations. PENCIL joined with such private-sector led initiatives such as the successful Campaign for Fiscal Equity, to bring business leaders into public support for state reform of education funding.

When the Bloomberg administration took office, it was a given that large-scale initiatives such as the Leadership Academy, which created a new training intensive program for school principals, were co-led by the private sector. Overall, student achievement improved: according to New York state data sources, overall English Language Arts and math proficiencies have improved since 2000, and high school graduation rates are now at an all-time high, at 77%

One critical distinction between now and then is that we are in the same storm, and to borrow a well-known Hollywood quote, we are going to need a bigger boat. Every sector in the city is addressing how to continue its systems and operations. How do we communicate remotely? How do we innovate in the face of uncertainty? How do we ensure equity? How do we maximize impact in a crisis economy? How do we jointly create the new New York City?

The approaches must encompass broad strategic organization as well as hyper-local solutions. Let’s focus on how this might play out for three daunting challenges for the 2020-2021 school year: creating healthy physical distances for students, professional learning for teachers – supporting teachers to become proficient online educators – and ensuring equitable access for learning for all students. Here are specific proposals that can be readily taken up by the private sector:

Expand the definition of learning environments. The real estate industry can marshal and improvise the use of novel spaces for physically distanced learning. Real estate leaders expect demand for office and retail space to be considerably lower, with at least a year until new tenants may fill the vacancies. Even in the outer boroughs, neighborhood shopping areas feature empty storefronts, accessible by local residents and by public transportation. Working with government entities, can we suspend classroom regulations and take up these spaces as a permanent annex for the next academic year and perhaps the one after that. In addition, students and teachers can be excited about new venues that provide unusual learning modes: How about morning lectures for high school chemistry at Madison Square Garden? Or exercise classes at Citi Field? Libraries, YMCA/YWCA/YMHAs and after-school programs and cultural institution leadership can host and lead out-of-school learning throughout the day, expanding each neighborhood’s learning landscape. All of these entities have specialized expertise that could support student learning and opportunity such as science, reading or physical education.

Organize resources for professional learning. Workers across industries are using online communication and that will likely continue as all sectors induct a mixed method of in-person and online work beginning in the fall. A citywide public-private partnership to frontload training sessions for teachers with workers from different industries will quickly create resource sharing and identify a corps of experts for ongoing support. Expertise can also be tapped from successful online learning from universities, pairing seasoned professors whose online courses generate real results with teams of teachers.

Draw from the energy of New Yorkers to address equity. Not surprisingly, the pandemic-crippled education system has hit children in need the hardest. The barriers are extensive but readily identifiable: lack of digital learning devices, no quiet space to learn and, for special education students who comprise 19% of the student population, a critical lack of learning tools necessary to support their education.

A citywide call to recruit New Yorkers for each of the city’s more than 1,400 schools will give each school a lifeline to new resources. Having that partner “squad” understand the individual needs of that school is essential. We must focus and fund our community-based organizations, non-profit service organizations and cultural organizations to provide and organize the thousands of volunteers, providing space, volunteers and engaged, active learning experiences for children within their neighborhood spheres prioritizing those neighborhoods where schools serve predominantly low-income families. Mentors, homework help, incentives, shared digital devices and wifi access, safe community-building events, are just some examples of the services that these institutions can offer.

Finally, we need visible, civic leadership from key industries working in partnership with elected officials, union officials and education leadership. Such leadership will be needed for at least two years, to provide the bridge to long-term changes that may ultimately be necessary in whatever world we find ourselves in after the pandemic is under control.

Let’s stop pretending we don’t have a disastrous problem to confront. Our already teetering and inequitable education system has been further crippled by the Covid pandemic. We have a responsibility and an opportunity to fully serve our public school students. In the interest of New York’s future, now is the time to step up. We have done it in the past and we can do it again.

Lisa Belzberg
was founder of PENCIL and is now an adjunct professor at Columbia University, School of International Affairs and a senior Advisor for YearUp.
Ruth Cohen
was the president of PENCIL and most recently the Senior Director for the Center for Lifelong Learning at the American Museum of Natural History.
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