-This blog was authored by Kevin Waterman, a Research Scientist at Education Development Center.
As state and district educators grapple with the constantly changing landscape brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has proved vital to heed the voices of those most directly affected by decisions about the upcoming school year. With support from the Region 2 Comprehensive Center (R2CC), the New York Board of Regents and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) convened a series of regional meetings, both for P-12 and higher education, to seek input from a broad spectrum of voices within and related to the education system to inform their reopening guidance to schools. Dr. Betty A. Rosa, Interim Commissioner of NYSED, praised the assistance, noting that “[The R2CC] proved invaluable in our efforts to gather stakeholder input in what re-opening should look like for New York’s schools and colleges.” Dr. Kimberly Young Wilkins, Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Instructional Support, added, “No one could have predicted the awful and unprecedented situation we found ourselves in during the spring of 2020. Yet Sarah Barzee and the Region 2 Comprehensive Center (R2CC) staff rose to the occasion, consistently providing us with the assistance we needed to enable us to develop our reopening guidance for a safe return to school this fall. It was a true educational collaboration.”
To achieve the goal of providing useful and substantive guidance that incorporated the important voices from across the state, online meetings were conducted in each of four regions in the state to gather stakeholders’ perspectives on three questions:
- What do you think are the greatest challenges that schools and school districts/institutions for higher education will face?
- Can you provide us with concrete examples of creative solutions to challenging problems that could work in your school or district/institution of higher education?
- Can you tell us how the Regents and Department can help eliminate any of the institutional, contractual, budgetary, or regulatory obstacles that stand in the way of your success?
Participants included a wide range of stakeholders, including teachers, principals, superintendents, school nurses, custodial staff, bus drivers, public health officials, university faculty, parents, and students. More than 1,650 stakeholders in the P-12 Reopening Task Force participated in breakout discussions on topics such as health and nutrition; safety, transportation, and facilities; bilingual learners, MLL, and ELL; special education; and digital equity. Close to 900 stakeholders participated in the Higher Education Reopening Meetings and joined smaller breakout discussions addressing topics such as clinical experiences for educator preparation and professional licensure programs; academics and financial aid; and health and safety for students and employees. Dr. Rosa notes, “Together, we figured out how to engage with the education communities to hold meaningful discussions with a diverse range of voices that helped inform our guidance documents.”
The R2CC provided support for the design and planning of the meetings, as well as technology support during the virtual meetings, each of which included more than 200 participants and up to 15 breakout rooms. The team also provided training for facilitators and notetakers and provided a data collection template for use by the facilitators and notetakers. R2CC staff also organized and synthesized data from the breakout discussions to categorize all stakeholder feedback into broad categories/themes to provide NYSED with the data they needed to develop a guidance document to assist districts in developing their reopening plans. John D’Agati, Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-20 Policy, said, “I found the R2CC team to be consistently helpful and supportive in every aspect of this project. Their ability to quickly understand and guide us through a complex process through implementation and support to the final product was extraordinary. In addition, their confidence and poise were amazing.” Dr. Wilkins adds, “The R2CC’s flexibility in responding to ever-shifting timelines and priorities, and their organizational and technological expertise provided the structure needed to plan and carry out virtual meetings of this magnitude.”
While each group had specific and unique concerns relative to their particular roles, it was also clear that the issues raised were connected and interdependent, highlighting the complexities involved in solving such systemic challenges. Each challenge that was raised had to be considered as one piece within the larger system. Exploring the potential consequences of every decision in each part of the system was an important part of these regional conversations.
The stakeholder input provided through the regional meetings resulted in comprehensive guidance documents for both P-12 education and higher education issued by NYSED in mid-July. The guidance documents reflect the concerns expressed during the regional meetings, as well as options available to districts to meet their individual needs, and recommendations on how best to achieve desired outcomes. Dr. Wilkins adds, “The R2CC enabled the Department to hear from stakeholder groups statewide and to develop a guidance document that is tremendously useful to schools and districts throughout the State.”
In spite of the unpredictability presented to schools and districts as the result of COVID-19, one thing is certain: continued communication and collaboration with a broad spectrum of stakeholders will be essential to addressing the problems that will arise, and that collaboration will result in the best possible experience for NY students. Dr. Rosa summarized the experience, saying “simply put, this level of stakeholder engagement would not have been possible without the R2CC. We thank Sarah Barzee and her team for their partnership and look forward to building on our relationship in the future.”