New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the final call on schools Friday: Students will not go back to class this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Buffalo parent leaders said they’re not surprised—but it won’t be easy for the families hit hardest by the disruptions of the "new normal."
Jessica Bauer Walker and Kim Hernandez lead two of the five district-recognized parent groups in Buffalo Public Schools, and the past seven weeks of school closures have been a difficult time for both of their members.
“We’re community health workers, which means we’re still working. We’re working a lot, so this is not downtime for us,” said Bauer Walker, president of the Buffalo Parent Community Health Worker Association and executive director of the Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo. “We’re trying to manage parenting and educating our kids and helping our community at the same time.”
Hernandez is chair of the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee, or SEPAC. That means she represents families with students whom research shows may have the most trouble adapting to online learning and continuing their education while school buildings are closed. Hernandez is also a family support coach at Parent Network of Western New York, a nonprofit organization that provides education and resources for families and professionals to empower individuals with disabilities.
“A lot of the kids need the structure in schools. They had the relationship with their aides, with their teachers, with their therapists, and now all of that has changed,” Hernandez said. “So, many of my families are having their own mental health challenges because they’re dealing with their kids at home.”
During the 2018-2019 school year, more than 1 in 5 Buffalo students was enrolled in a special education program. And with numerous studies showing that low-income and minority students are disproportionately referred for special education services, both Hernandez and Bauer Walker confirmed that the families with the highest needs before the pandemic are now struggling the most.
“Oh, 100%,” Hernandez said when asked about the disproportionate burden.
“We have a lot of parents who we’ve heard from who are struggling with having food in their house, not having internet access, when we’re depending on it so much for our kids to learn, housing issues, [and] access to healthcare,” Bauer Walker said. “It’s just a lot, and for our families that were the most vulnerable and needed the most help before this, this has only amplified the situation.”
Despite the many challenges, both parent leaders agree with Gov. Cuomo’s decision to keep schools closed this year.
“I need to know how you’re going to keep our kids safe first. I need to know how our teachers are going to be safe [and] parents when they come in,” Hernandez said. “It’s just so much to put in order before you can say, ‘Go back to school.’ So, I get it. It’s okay. It’s rough—it’s rough for our families that need their kids to go back to school where there’s structure. They need behavioral specialists.”
“I think it’s the best choice probably for what’s safe and healthy for our families [but] still a lot to be able to manage for our families,” Bauer Walker said. And that’s why Hernandez and Bauer Walker also said they want parents to play a greater role in the Buffalo school district’s decision-making moving forward. Both women raised concerns that their groups didn’t have meaningful conversations with district officials until “too far into this situation.”
“Hear what our issues are. Hear how you can help us,” Hernandez said. “How do you know how to help me if you don’t live in my shoes?"
“I’ve heard at board meetings things like, ‘Well, parents are saying this…’ or ‘What would parents want?’ and I think that the district could think about how to do this bottom-up leadership a bit better,” Bauer Walker said.
Not all parent leaders feel the same way. Representatives from two other groups (Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization [BPTO] and Most Valuable Parents [MVP]) told WBFO they’ve been working closely and efficiently with the district.
“I think that in a large urban school district, it’s complex, the kinds of roles and responsibilities that people take on, particularly when you’re thrown into a remote schooling model,” said Rachel Fix Dominguez, BPTO co-chair. “BPTO and the Parent Congress [a consortium of the five parent groups] have had regular meetings with district personnel… I don’t think there’s been a shortage of meetings.”
BPS Associate Superintendent of Student Support Services Tonja Williams said the district has held three virtual meetings with the Parent Congress, plus several others with individual groups.
“We have been, I believe, very responsive [to parents],” Williams said. “I always share that they certainly have an expertise that, you know, sometimes educators, [we have] a different lens, that sometimes we don’t necessarily bring to the table, and so that’s why we value so much what their input is.”
District and parent politics aside, Superintendent Kriner Cash has been candid about equity issues like food security and the digital divide. Speaking Friday after the governor’s announcement, he also acknowledged the critical organizing work that parents are taking on.
“We’re asking our volunteers, our Parent Congress groups… that are helping find out which families need to be reconnected with the district, so we can keep a roster, keep names [and] keep what the issues are related to that family and then do outreach,” Cash said. “It’s a both/and: We need help from the families and then we pledge to do our part literally one family at a time whenever we hear about a need.”
One thing all of the parent groups and district officials agree on is that the 24/7 BPS helpline at 716-816-7100 is the most direct resource for families in need.
Meanwhile, SUNY Buffalo State’s Dean of the School of Education, Dr. Wendy Paterson, offered some perspective for any parents who might be worried about their children’s academic progress.
“Kids are amazingly resilient, and they will also survive this,” she said. “In a normal school year, by about May, the amount that kids learn significantly declines. You’re not hitting very much actual growth in June…ending in May is not such a big tragedy as ending in March.”
Paterson’s advice for parents and caregivers is to remember that home is not school. But there is a lot that families can do to keep students learning.
“If you can continue to have them talk and write and read, that’s huge,” Paterson said. “I’ve been seeing some really interesting YouTube videos about getting back in touch with your kids and talking to them and reading to them and spending time with them. Those are really important lessons that we’re kind of being forced to do that aren’t bad to do.”
As an educator of teachers, Paterson also said she hopes the extended closure might even spark a renewed respect for school.