7 On Your Side Investigates: Lack of guidance, resources are top concerns for schools

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- A lack of guidance and resources are top concerns for school districts in New York and New Jersey scrambling to finalize plans for the 2020-2021 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey by Eyewitness News.

"I don't think it escapes anyone's recognition that this is not typical and it is not ideal," said Kevin Casey, executive director of the School Administrators Association of New York. "They are trying to do all of this, looking at cuts in New York, at least. It puts them in a very difficult position. More and more districts, as we get closer to the date of an actual opening, are opting to go full remote for a semester or for a shortened period to buy some time to greater prepare for the return of students."

Eyewitness News surveyed roughly 650 school districts throughout New York and New Jersey regarding back to school plans. Just over 8% of the districts responded.

Roughly 79% of those districts said they would like more guidance from the government about best practices for resuming in-person and online learning.

At least 30% listed a lack of funding as a top challenge facing the district.

"It makes it very tough," said Carol Conklin-Spillane, president of the Empire State Supervisors and Administrators Association. "Budgets have been slashed because revenue has been slashed. So it's an added pressure with more limitations on resources that just adds to the ramping up of the challenges."

At least 98% of responding districts indicated they planned to require teachers and students to wear masks, and 100% of respondents planned to physically distance students six feet apart in classrooms.

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Roughly 84% of respondents planned to use a mix of in-person and online learning.

Roughly 87% planned to stagger arrival and drop off times to limit crowding, but only 66% planned to perform temperature checks on everyone entering the building.

About 95% planned to have at least one dedicated school nurse professional in each building.

Just over half had added physical barriers in bathrooms and other tight quarters.

Roughly 76% of districts planned to clean shared surfaces more than once a day. About 4% planned to clean shared surfaces less often, a couple times a week.

A large majority of districts indicated they had not improved school ventilation systems.

All of the districts indicated they would disable water fountains, but only 6% indicated they had an alternative plan to provide students water.

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"There is no way to make this great for everybody," Conklin-Spillane said. "We all have to do the best we can, and that is a tall order right now. I think the big concerns come down to what happens when the house of cards unfolds and people feel like they don't have the backups or the resources they need."

Meanwhile, a new report by the Alliance for Quality Education warns that Governor Andrew Cuomo's threat of an additional 20% funding cut will further harm schools, especially high needs districts.

"This is a lose-lose situation for our high-needs districts, and we know these cuts are going to disproportionately impact high needs communities, black and brown communities, and low income communities," said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of AQE. "Right now, we know it is going to cost more, not less, to educate students."

Gripper is calling on New York to dip into its reserves to help fund education during the pandemic.

"If nothing is a rainy day, this is a rainy day," she said. "The state has billions of dollars stacked away for a time as this."

New enrollment information from the New York City Department of Education is further highlighting disparities.

In general, that data showed more affluent schools had a greater percentage of students opting to stay home and requesting remote learning, while more economically challenged schools had a greater percentage of students planning to attend class in person.

"What concerns me is the equity gap," Casey said. "What does this do structurally to education looking long term?"

School administrators said they will give their students the best education possible, but they also expressed concerns about whether what they can provide under these circumstances will be enough.

"We are obligated to serve the children of the communities where we are," Conklin-Spillane said. "So it is a different kind of pressure. People are rolling up their sleeves. They are not looking for reasons not to do things, but it is an uphill climb."

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