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New York State Teams With Gates Foundation to ‘Reimagine Education’ Amid Pandemic

By Evie Blad — May 05, 2020 5 min read
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New York state will work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a plan to “reimagine education,” developing new online learning strategies as it continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday.

The state’s schools are closed for the remainder of the school year to slow the spread of the virus and, like every other state, New York leaders are considering what schools should look like when they reopen. Some governors have raised concerns about maintaining social distancing in classrooms and planning for rapid, emergency transitions back to online learning if the virus resurges in their areas. Cuomo, a Democrat, seemed to suggest the work with the Gates Foundation would move beyond that, planning for larger changes.

“So, it’s not about just reopening schools,” Cuomo said at his daily coronavirus briefing. “When we are reopening schools, let’s open a better school, and let’s open a smarter education system. ... Bill Gates is a visionary in many ways, and his ideas and thoughts on technology and education he’s spoken about for years, but I think we now have a moment in history where we can actually incorporate and advance those ideas.”

Learning from Crisis

Cuomo sandwiched his thoughts on education between broader remarks about learning from the state’s experience during the crisis in areas like transportation.

He said the education system did “a great job” transitioning to remote learning with very little advanced warning, but that some teachers needed more training in virtual instruction, and some students lacked technology and devices.

“We’ve all been talking about tele-education, virtual education, remote education, and there’s a lot that can be done” he said. “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. Why, with all the technology you have?”

Cuomo did not outline the scope and aim of the state’s work with the Gates Foundation. As he spoke, he showed a slide that showed questions like, “Where can we use technology to provide more opportunity to students no matter where they are?” and “How can we use technology to meet educational needs of students with disabilities?”

Criticism of Gates Plan

Cuomo’s announcement was met with concern from some educators, who believe it focused too heavily on technology, overlooking the value of in-person education and supporting students’ growing social and emotional needs as the state recovers.

“Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process—which is why we’ve seen educators work so hard during this pandemic to maintain those connections through video chats, phone calls and socially distant in-person meetings,” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallott said in a statement. “If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state.”

Cuomo’s remarks also were also panned educational activists who question the Gates Foundation’s support for initiatives like test-based teacher evaluations and common core standards and are critical of the foundation’s overall influence on the education sector.

In a tweet to Cuomo, parent activist Leonie Haimson cited the state’s 2014 decision to pull the plug on its relationship with inBloom, a controversial Gates-supported effort to store and sort student data for states and districts that faced concerns from student-privacy groups.

Gates Foundation Coronavirus Response

The Gates Foundation has responded to the pandemic by offering emerging aid to existing grantees to help them “confront their most urgent needs,” Bob Hughes, the foundation’s director of K-12 education, told Education Week opinion blogger Rick Hess last month.

“We’re working with partners such as the Council of Chief State School Officers to help state departments of education and school districts navigate the immediate programmatic and financial implications of this emergency,” Hughes said. “We’re also supporting partners who are expanding online learning and coordinating meals and other supports for K-12 students, and helping lessen the financial shock felt disproportionately by low-income college students due to lost housing, food, and wages.”

The Gates Foundation provided few details about the New York initiative Tuesday.

“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 organization’s press office said in a statement. “We will provide further details as they become available.”

A spokesman for the state’s education department referred questions to the governor’s office.

“The Board of Regents and Department recently announced they will be creating a statewide task force on re-opening made up of education leaders, which has been widely supported by New York’s education community,” the agency said in a statement. “By working with our partners across the state, we can ensure our guidance is grounded in the principles of practice and our children’s educational, developmental and overall wellbeing is considered during this important discussion”

Education Week has reached out to Cuomo’s office for more information about the plan. We will update this post if they respond.

Photo: A still from C-SPAN video of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s May 5 coronavirus briefing.

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