One of Bob Lowry’s favorite movies is “Apollo 13” about the aborted moon mission.
“A lot of smart people working together under tremendous pressure to solve complicated problems. This experience has felt like that,” he said of working to meet students’ needs while schools are closed.
Lowry, who is the deputy director for Advocacy and Communication for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, was expressing an idea that’s been percolating among education advocates since before Tuesday.
That’s the day Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his administration was engaging in a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to re-imagine education in New York, post-pandemic. The announcement was met with surprise and anger from the teachers’ union.
“Gates has not come through for students around the state and around the country,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta told Spectrum News. “So why would we enlist someone like him again?”
Pallotta was referencing the Gates Foundation’s support of the Common Core learning standards as well as the effort to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. Both reforms prompted protests among parents and teachers as well as a years-long movement to opt-out of state tests.
The wounds inflicted during those political fights have left some keloid scar tissue on the relationship between the teachers’ unions and the Cuomo administration.
“I was thinking the other night, [Gates] had all these ideas and where are these ideas now? Filling landfills around the country,” said NYSUT’s Pallotta. “So why go again to Bill Gates?”
Lowry agrees there is apprehension that stems from working with the Gates Foundation after such a fraught few years.
“Assessing the reactions of people in the education world, people are feeling apprehensive if not alarmed about [the Gates] announcement,” he said. “Part of it is the vagueness. The suddenness. Not knowing how this is going to be structured, or who is going to be involved.”
Additionally, Lowry says, “It makes sense to step back and consider what we’ve learned from this experience, but it matters how and by whom.”
Lowry says the state’s own education community is up to the challenge of re-imagining education, post-pandemic. In fact, he says, it’s already begun.
“Districts had to make this sudden change with only a few days’ notice,” he said. “Initially being told it might only be for two weeks. So first, the priority was that we hope kids don’t lose ground. Then schools started teaching new material.”
Lowry says that districts around the state are learning about what works and what doesn’t every single day.
“We are learning how to do it and we are seeing that gap [in connectivity] exist,” Lowry said.
For years now, schools in New York have been asked to do more than educate children: They have been asked to provide food, physical and mental health services, even assistance from attorneys and social workers.
Over the past few months, many districts in the state have successfully reimagined those services to work during this pandemic, while also delivering meals, arranging for emergency child care and providing wifi by sending busses to school parking lots.
“Remote instruction will be a larger part of what we do going forward,” said Lowry. “But one thing that has come through loudly and clearly is that students, teachers, and superintendents are all pained by the loss of the person-to-person connections that come with being in school.”