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Testimony

Testimony regarding the reopening of NYC public schools and its impact on students with disabilities

Testimony

Testimony of UFT Vice President for Special Education MaryJo Ginese before the New York City Council Committee on Education and Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction

My name is MaryJo Ginese and I am the vice president for special education at the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the more than 190,000 UFT members, I would like to thank Chairpersons Mark Treyger and Diana Ayala and all the members of the New York City Council’s Committee on Education and its Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction for holding this important hearing on the reopening of New York City (NYC) public school buildings for the 2020-21 school year as it relates to the impact it has had on students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a former occupational therapist, I understand the value in providing individualized attention and services to our students with special needs. These are some of our students who are most affected by the pandemic and, as educators, we have a legal obligation to ensure that students with disabilities continue to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Remote learning has been challenging for children with special needs, but we remain committed to making improvements. We are working tirelessly to bring the voices of educators and parents into conversations about reopening plans so the Department of Education hears the classroom perspective and may better understand the challenges families and teachers face.

A recent focus group was composed of special education teachers and their general education co-teachers in Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom settings. I want to take this opportunity to share with you the challenges they are facing and to ask you to be our allies in government to help us develop solutions.

Technology

I cannot emphasize enough how much support our educators, students and their families need with technology. The educators in our most recent focus group shared their common reality of teaching in an ICT classroom. This is an educational setting in which a general education and a special education teacher jointly provide instruction to a class that has students with and without disabilities.

  1. Students do not know how to draft an email, open a google doc or take a picture of an assignment to send to their teachers. To help resolve this issue, you will see English language arts teachers in some schools teaching how to draft an email, while students in a social studies classroom are learning how to open a google doc. This is an immediate solution to the problem but, ultimately, it takes away too much instructional time from students, in particular students with disabilities.
  2. Educators and students are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of continuity and consistency of the online platforms. On any given day, students might have to switch between eight to 15 Google Classrooms, or worse, switch between Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Additionally, the platforms and their functions change at a pace that feels unsustainable, with one teacher citing during our focus group that a tutorial available on the Department of Education (DOE) website on a platform function may become out of date in a matter of days.
  3. The hardware available in the classroom and for students is not adequate. Educators teaching remotely to an in-person classroom cannot hear students properly because there’s only a laptop available; younger students, in particular, do not have keyboards, forcing them to type using just one finger; and students continue to have internet connectivity issues while some educators have issues with spotty Wi-Fi.
  4. Google Classroom remains the most popular online platform, but it lacks the function of organizing files in a way that would make it easy for students and teachers to switch between archived files and current files pertinent to the day’s lesson. Additionally, the inability to co-host a Google Classroom restricts the ability of co-teachers and paraprofessionals to support whole classroom instruction, breakout rooms and individual students.
  5. Educators are using their 20 minutes of office hours at the end of each school day to help students and their families troubleshoot their technology issues. It can take some families two to three weeks before they hear back from DOE tech support. Twenty minutes is not enough time, considering one technology issue alone can take 20 minutes to resolve. However, the bigger problem is that this is not the best use of teachers’ office hours. They are meant for teachers to connect with their students and families on academic achievement and social-emotional well-being.

Functional technology is the foundation of remote instruction. Without it, we cannot get to the deeper and more intricate issue of student progress. It’s imperative that the administration work with the technology companies under contract to resolve these problems. We believe a possible solution can be found by assigning a tech support professional to every school. This way, educators can focus on instruction, and students and their families can get immediate help.

Staffing

Second to the myriad issues with technology are the problems related to staffing. The original policy instituted by administration called for full-time remote teachers to teach remote learners, and teachers returning to the classroom to provide instruction to students enrolled in the blended-learning model.

Our conversations with practitioners have painted a different reality. In one case, a school in Brooklyn started the school year short 15 in-person educators. Two days after reopening, the school building was ordered to close because it was located in one of the new “red zones” and all instruction went remote. The consequences of being so short-staffed did not fully play out due to the sudden building closure, but you can imagine the repercussions that could result from such a severely understaffed school.

The same staffing shortage at a different school, one that remained open, meant some in-person special educators are responsible for their in-person students, their blended remote students on remote days and the fully remote students in their classes.

This creates a problem with lesson planning, particularly for educators in ICT classrooms. Students learning in-person need different materials than students learning remotely, with materials for remote instruction taking far more time to create. Additionally, students with disabilities often require that their materials be accommodated or modified as mandated by their individualized education plans (IEPs). Having to switch between in-person and remote instruction due to severe staffing shortages is straining many of our educators who are working under unsustainable conditions.

All educators have a 30-minute instructional planning period in the morning to allow educators who teach the same groups of children, some in person and some remotely, time to plan and collaborate on the instruction.

One of the effects of the staffing shortage felt by ICT classrooms is that there are not enough special education teachers to meet the demand. So, for example, at the middle and high school levels, a single special education teacher can teach English language arts, math, science and social studies and need to coordinate planning with four different general education teachers. The 30-minute planning session is simply not enough time to coordinate the educational needs of special education and general education students across multiple subjects for both in-person and remote settings.

As a result, the 30-minute period becomes a quick check-in between the special education and general education teachers before they are expected to follow students for the remainder of the day.

The staffing shortage has also had an impact on the amount of time a special education teacher gets to spend with students when they are remote. In the case of in-person learning, ICT classrooms can be as small as five students, giving the educators ample time to get to know the students and their needs. However, the same cannot be said for students with disabilities engaging in remote instruction. Often, virtual classrooms are crowded and interacting with an individual student is constrained by the functionality of the online platforms.

Our special education educators say the end result is that they do not have enough time to get to know their students, a reality that affects students’ social-emotional well-being and impinges on their teachers’ ability to correctly assess their progress and needs. Our members fear this disconnect will manifest in special education students’ IEPs being less insightful and in educators’ inability to meet the high bar of providing specialized instruction and services as closely as possible to students’ IEP mandates.

To alleviate some of these challenges, the administration agreed to redeploy 2,000 educators and hire an additional 4,500 teachers. They would fill the shortage of educators needed for in-person instruction that resulted from the restrictions on class size necessary to maintain social distancing. To improve remote instruction, the administration agreed to identify proven masters of remote instruction as Virtual Content Specialists, giving them the task of creating academic content and materials that enhance remote instruction for students and, at the same time, supporting educators who are teaching remotely full time. I implore you to urge the administration to move forward with redeployment, to hire the 4,500 additional qualified teachers and to make public the job posting for the Virtual Content Specialist position.

Closing thoughts

Once again, I want to thank Chairpersons Mark Treyger and Diana Ayala for hosting today’s hearing. Our students with disabilities are among those who are the most vulnerable and the most affected by our current public health crisis. As educators, we take very seriously the legal mandate we uphold to provide our students with disabilities with a free appropriate public education. This is why I am here today to ask for your support, as our allies in government, in addressing the technology and staffing issues I mentioned. Working together, I know we can make this challenging time easier on our students, their families and our educators. We owe that to them.