A School Year Like No Other Requires Creativity, Flexibility, and Most of All Equity

Digital Briefs

September 14, 2020

New York City will be attempting one of the most complicated instructional challenges the nation’s largest school district has ever undertaken. The 2020-2021 school year is set to begin next week with a blended learning model, whereby only a portion of students will be in schools each day with the rest learning remotely. Along with the logistical challenges of such a model, it is imperative that the health, safety and well-being of our students, teachers and staff comes first as they begin to gather indoors.

To work successfully, this moment of crisis requires flexibility and creativity, but it also requires a steadfast commitment to equity. We know that remote learning was an obstacle for many students, especially for those already disadvantaged and at risk. As we enter this new school year, it is vital that we take into account lessons learned earlier and structure learning to support students with unique needs and challenges as best we possibly can.

CCC understands the concerns of teachers and principals that have led to a delayed start to the school year. During this added time as well as into the first few months of transition the city must continue to develop and support practices that benefit those with the most to lose from long-term remote learning.

Prioritize In-Person Learning For Younger And More Vulnerable Students

Schools are set to open under a variety of hybrid models, all based on different cohorts of students attending school at different times to reduce capacity and ensure social distancing. However, no priority was given for some students to receive more in-person instruction based on academic and other needs (only District 75 schools exclusively for students with disabilities were given the option to offer full-time in-person learning).

Students in Grades K-5

Elementary school-aged children have the most to lose from attending remotely or only sometimes in-person. A study released in July concluded “In grades K-3, children are still developing the skills to regulate their own behavior, emotions, and attention, and therefore struggle with distance learning.” This in addition to the challenges of learning to read, write and develop other foundational skills remotely. City Councilmember and Chair of the Education Committee Mark Treyger called for prioritization of young students for in-person instruction, also noting the logistical advantage of offering younger students in-person school would make remote learning easier for older students who were previously tasked with watching them at home.

Students in Temporary Housing

Students in temporary housing, including those in shelters or doubled-up in homes. often lack access to a reliable internet connection, or a personal device to call their own, or both. They are more likely to lack the physical space to learn remotely where they live, especially those who might also have siblings who are also remote-learning, and they may not have a caregiver present to help them set up their access or guide them throughout the school day.

In April, CCC highlighted these issues to call on the Dept. of Education (DOE) to expedite delivery of internet devices to the over 114,000 students in temporary housing and grant them access to temporary in-person learning centers. This upcoming school year, these students continue to be among the most vulnerable and CCC was proud to join many other organizations to call on the city and DOE to offer these students full-time in-person instruction or priority in learning spaces, adequate transportation notification, and increased attention to their digital barriers. We were pleased to see the Dept. of Education inquire about students in shelters in their survey for the Learning Bridges school-day child care plan this school year.

Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities comprise over 20% of the entire New York City student population and are at particular risk of falling behind during remote learning. They are also more likely to rely on in-person adult support—meaning that a student’s ability to benefit from the instruction and services offered during remote learning often depends on their parent’s availability, language, resources, and technology skills. Advocates for Children recently released a detailed list of recommendations for students with disabilities this upcoming school year, including recommending that the DOE “offer full-time in-person instruction to all students in self-contained special education classes” and “offer multiple options for families who want in-person related services, including receiving services in schools, at the City’s new “Learning Bridges” child care programs, at home, and at related service agencies.” Importantly, these recommendations draw a distinction between students in self-contained special education classes, and the many students whose IEPs require that they learn in integrated environments with general population students. As best as hybrid schedules can accommodate, students with disabilities must continue to learn, both remotely and in-person, in the least restrictive environments.

English Language Learners

Before the pandemic English language learners in the DOE saw some of the worst academic outcomes of any subgroup of students, with higher dropout rates and lower graduation rates despite their vast potential. Remote learning is likely to exacerbate these disparate outcomes, with the children of immigrants likely to not speak English at home, and may have struggled with accessing and using technology. The complex nature of the upcoming school year has steepened the communication barrier for these families, who are often left out of receiving vital information about scheduling, transportation or meals. The DOE reopening plan should allow English language learners to receive more in-person instruction and make a concerted effort to reach immigrant families in a variety of ways.

Vulnerable Populations by School District

by NYC school district

Sources: New York City Department of Education, Demographic Snapshots ; New York State Education Department in the Student Information Repository System; Retrieved from the Keeping Track Online Database.

Ensure All Educational Settings Are Flexible And Prepared

Early Care and Education

Early care and education has never been as important as it is in our current moment; to help working families get back to work, to support child development, and to address social emotional trauma created by the pandemic. New York City’s expansive system of early care and education, including universal Pre-K, Pre-K for three-year-olds, subsidized infant toddler care in centers and home-based settings and care provided through vouchers, must be given the same attention, preparation, and flexibility afforded to the public school system. Earlier this summer CCC released a set of priorities for early care and education in order to position it as part of the city’s COVID recovery. These priorities included protecting the system’s capacity, meeting children’s social-emotional needs through integrated practices, and continuing to support the development of remote programming and supporting this critical workforce.

Ages of Children in Publicly-Funded Early Care

Source: CCC Analysis of child care enrollment data from the New York City Administration for Children’s Services Child Care Data (February 2018) and New York City Department of Education Demographic Snapshots (SY 2017/2018). Retrieved from the Keeping Track Online Database.

Children in Publicly-Funded Early Care by Type of Setting

Source: CCC Analysis of child care enrollment data from the New York City Administration for Children’s Services Child Care Data (February 2018) and New York City Department of Education Demographic Snapshots (SY 2017/2018). Retrieved from the Keeping Track Online Database.


The city’s robust network of afterschool programs and youth services must also be part of the restart plan. To date, afterschool providers, which served over 220,000 children last school year, have been planning to run the city’s Learning Bridges program for school-age child care, but have received very little support in developing safe and effective afterschool programs for the upcoming school year. In fact, guidance issued to schools to keep children in the same learning pods has led some principals to decline their usual offering of school-based afterschool. Providers who have expressed interest and capacity to run both Learning Bridges during the school day and an afterschool program are still waiting for guidance on how to keep youth enrolled in both programs safely. Additionally, afterschool programs need the same flexibility as schools to offer remote services, which they did so effectively throughout the spring and summer months.

Many afterschool programs, serve the communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, and their programs have always been vital to the academic, social-emotional, and physical well-being of youth. These providers and CBOs must be intimately involved in the new school year to ensure the entire educational continuum is safe, effective and supportive.

Compass, SONYC, Cornerstone and Beacon Locations by Zip Code

Source: CCC Analysis of Department of Youth and Community Development (June 2019) DYCD Program Sites.

Support The Behavioral Health Needs Of Students

With the transition to distance learning, many children have lost a source of stability and routine, and may experience feelings of social isolation and anxiety. Many LGBTQ students may face heightened challenges if they live in unsupportive families and have lost their in-person connection to a more affirming school community. Additionally, the shuttering of schools has impaired the ability to identify and connect or maintain continuity of student’s access to clinical services. The importance of schools as a setting through which to receive clinical services is clear; a national study from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that more than 13% of adolescents received some form of mental health services in a school setting in the previous 12 months. Additionally, 35% of adolescents who receive any mental health services receive them exclusively from school settings. Schools will remain an important site – whether physical or virtual – for connecting children to emotional and behavioral supports.

Read more about children’s behavioral health during COVID in our recent blog. More in depth recommendations on school-based behavioral health will be forthcoming from CCC.

This school year will be a new frontier in the educational landscape of New York City, and it will have lasting implications on all facets of our COVID-19 recovery and beyond. Along with its commitment to health and safety, the city and the DOE must focus its efforts over the next year on equity, paying particular attention to our youngest students, students with special needs, and the essential role that the broader educational continuum including early care and education, youth services, and behavioral health care providers play in supporting the well-being and academic success of students.

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