NYC seeks refunds for students whose family moved, pulled out because of COVID-19: WSJ

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New York City public schools that lost students after families moved or pulled out because of the Covid-19 pandemic now must prepare to return to the city some funding due to enrollment drops.

This academic year, the number of students enrolled in the country’s largest school system from grades 3K to 12 is approximately 960,000, down about 43,000, or 4%, from the previous year, according to preliminary city enrollment data.

Schools that lost students will have to return a portion of the funding received for each student who left.

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Jessica Flores remembers seeing the problems brewing in July that will end up costing her school a lot of funding. Within months of the start of the pandemic, droves of families started withdrawing their children from her son’s elementary school — Public School 9 Sarah Smith Garnet — with many moving them to private or out-of-town schools, she said.

PS9, which is in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, could be required to return at least $292,000 in funding, or $4,000 a student, for the schools’ loss of 73 students. Ms. Flores, who leads a school parent group, said PS9 can’t afford the repayment while it is spending about $20,000 a week on substitute teachers to help with staffing during the pandemic.

New York City public schools that lost students after families moved or pulled out because of the Covid-19 pandemic now must prepare to return to the city some funding due to enrollment drops. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

New York City public schools that lost students after families moved or pulled out because of the Covid-19 pandemic now must prepare to return to the city some funding due to enrollment drops. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

“This is already hundreds of thousands of dollars that the school is spending that it doesn’t normally spend,” she said.

PS9, where the majority of students are Black and Latino, was the school of Sandra Santos-Vizcaino, who was believed to be the first public-school teacher in New York City to die of coronavirus, in April.

“And next year, when the mayor wants us to open five days a week, we’re supposed to welcome these children who have been through so much back to a school that will have less funds and support services,” Ms. Flores said.

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In a Jan. 20 letter sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a coalition of 16 City Council members asked him to offer “budget amnesty” to the schools.

The Department of Education said that the repayments are part of a midyear adjustment process that happens every year, one that “right-sizes school budgets to their actual needs,” providing more money to schools that demonstrate that their level of need has changed, the agency said.

DOE spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon said that given the current circumstances of the pandemic, the agency isn’t surprised by this year’s enrollment figures. “However, no school district has stabilized its school system the way we have,” she said.

The agency said it has seen enrollment decline every year since 2016, in part because of the falling birthrate. But the size of this year’s decline was mostly attributable to Covid-19.

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The agency said most schools plan ahead for the midyear adjustment and have already calculated it into their overall budget. The DOE provided extra financial support to schools “with demonstrated in-person staffing needs.”

The 16 City Council members who signed the letter echo some schools’ concerns about having to repay money while facing Covid-19 expenses.

“This is an absurd, unfair demand that threatens to consume school budgets and push them into deficit, cause unnecessary anxiety for principals and school communities, and further erode educational quality during and after the pandemic,” the council members said in the letter.

They suggested that the DOE use federal aid to absorb Covid-19 related costs. “At a bare minimum, DOE should formally suspend the amounts that schools have been told they owe, until we see how much funding New York City will be getting, so we can make sound decisions together,” the letter read.

Without naming specific schools, the City Council members cited a school that owes DOE more than half-a-million dollars, a school that expects to be in debt $240,000 next school year and one that is currently spending about 97% of its $3.5 million budget on staffing. The principal “already has almost no money for books, professional development, improving remote learning or enhancing SEL supports,” they said, referring to social and emotional learning.

PS 9 principal Fatimah Ali declined to comment, but the school parent group led by Ms. Flores also sent Mayor de Blasio a letter last week requesting amnesty. Ms. Flores said the funds are due in June. She said the majority of the school’s budget is being consumed by salaries and about 10% is set aside for discretionary items such as programming enrichment.

Repaying the funds “would present an immeasurable educational injury to the students currently at PS9, and would have follow-on effects for years to come,” the parent group’s letter read, by forcing PS9 to “tap into funding for enrichment and intervention programs that are absolutely critical to students.”

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The school will need more money, not less, to prepare for students’ return to a five-day-a-week in-person schedule, whenever that happens, the letter said.

The DOE’s Ms. O’Hanlon said the district will be responsive to schools’ changing needs. “The entire administration has been clear that the safe reopening of city schools is a priority,” she said.

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