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Public advocate demands schools clear families probed for skipping online school

May 13, 2020 Eileen Grench THE CITY
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New York City’s watchdog is demanding answers from education officials following THE CITY’s report that some parents waiting to get remote-learning equipment for their kids instead received visits from child welfare investigators.

In a May 4 letter addressed to Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams acknowledged the “difficulty inherent in quickly transitioning the country’s largest school system” during the coronavirus pandemic.

But, he added: “DOE staff should not default to filing suspected educational neglect when students are not reported present through remote learning attendance procedures.”

Williams asked that any reports called in be “purged” from the state child neglect and maltreatment registry — and “not be admissible in any pending court, housing, employment, or other matters that could adversely impact children and families.”

The letter has yet to be acknowledged by City Hall, according to the public advocate, who had asked for a response “within one week.”

“This is not the federal government that is doing this. These are local executives and local agencies that are putting this disparity and widening it,” Williams told THE CITY. “The virus itself doesn’t discriminate. Our policies and our responses clearly have been disparate. We’re looking to hear what the DOE has to say.”

The Department of Education provided iPads for remote learning during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Better outreach sought

On Monday night, the DOE reiterated its response to THE CITY’s late-April story, when the department pledged to dismiss any report found to be “due to lack of access to technology.” Officials promised to get back to Williams “this week.”

“We agree with the public advocate and that is why we issued guidance for reporting educational neglect that specifically said access to technology should not be the primary reason to report,” said Nathaniel Styer, a DOE spokesperson.

“Prior to reporting a case of neglect, schools must take measures to contact and work with families to find solutions,” he added. “If an [Administration for Children’s Services] investigation finds a report of educational neglect was due to lack of access to technology, that allegation would be determined to be unfounded.”

City officials issued a memo in late April detailing measures to be taken before an educator makes a call into the State Central Register for Child Abuse and Maltreatment.

“School staff must make every effort to confirm that lack of access to technology is not the primary reason for a child’s failure to participate in remote learning,” according to the memo.

‘Ignored and hammered’

In his letter, Williams seeks further details from DOE about how exactly school personnel conduct outreach to families prior to calling in a child welfare report — including whether schools attempt multiple means of contact and use the languages families speak.

He also noted that some families have experienced trouble signing in into an iPad or similar gadget sent to them by education officials.

“It has been shared with us that every family that receives a remote device has to unlock the device itself before it can be used,” he wrote. “Please explain how a family and/or student may unlock devices.”

Williams told THE CITY he sees lower-income families’ school struggles as part of other forces slamming them in the crisis.

“These same communities are getting ignored and hammered at the same time,” he said.

“They got ignored when it was testing. They got ignored with [personal protective equipment]. And as you moved to telelearning, they didn’t have all the hardware that was needed. And then on top of that, you’re going to send [the Administration for Children’s Services] to further traumatize a family?”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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