BY CHRISTOPHER MARTE | As weeks turned into months of pandemic in New York City, some parents had the means to consider alternatives for their kids: Keep their kids in public schools that were struggling to adjust to online learning, or retreat to somewhere with lower infection rates and enroll in an in-person school.
Families made their decisions based on many individual circumstances. A majority of families did not have the fortune of having a choice at all. However, those who stayed, and continued to tough it out during this difficult time, are now facing consequences caused by those who left.
A school’s budget is primarily determined by its enrollment. Schools with lower enrollment are assumed to need less resources. The pandemic throws a wrench in this formula as needs have escalated dramatically. Online and hybrid learning bring astronomical costs in terms of both equipment and staff. If the Department of Education (D.O.E.) does not act swiftly, student needs will be sacrificed and budgets will be slashed when they need to be raised.
Public schools face an annual midyear budget adjustment, early in the calendar year. Their enrollment as of October is compared to their current and projected enrollment, usually from the summer, and funds are cut or raised accordingly. Unforeseen enrollment losses can cause a school to owe money to the D.O.E.; basically, the school would have to return funding.
Last May, when schools were planning their budgets, principals had no way to predict what the state of the pandemic would be by the following September. Sixty percent of our schools, including many schools in Community School District 2, now have significant deficits from unpredictable enrollment drops. Without amnesty, they will be saddled with debt at a moment when more resources are needed due to learning loss, emotional consequences of lockdown and additional staffing needs.
There is precedent for an amnesty program to forgive all school debt. The 2010 financial crisis spurred a debt-forgiveness program that let public schools off the hook for circumstances beyond their control, allowing them to return to good financial standing.
Our students and teachers need robust funding, not budget cuts. Dividing in-person learning into cohorts, balancing remote and blended learning, and investing in technology to deliver remote classes all put a heavy burden on a school’s staff and resources. During a pandemic, it makes no sense to tie a school’s funds to its enrollment. We know that families who left the city will be back, and their kids will return to their friends and teachers in our public schools. But to ensure their return, their schools should not be forced into debt.
Never have our school teachers and administrators worked harder than they have during the COVID era. Never have our children and their families been put through more change and trauma. Let’s not repay them by punishing them for a situation beyond their control. For the students that stayed, and for the students that left but will return, we demand amnesty.
Marte is a candidate for City Council in Lower Manhattan’s District 1.