Buffalo schools struggled with distance learning

District attempted to thwart reporting on numerous problems, including student no-shows and lack of consistent instruction
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

This story began in April with a handful of simple questions: How many Buffalo school students are participating in distance learning? How many hours a day are they engaged in learning? And how much are they really learning?

They were obvious and reasonable questions. So we posed them to the folks who run the school system. Their response: hysterics and stonewalling. 

We then turned to teachers, who, in often heartfelt terms, described their experiences working with students since schools shut their doors the middle of March because of the pandemic. Their experiences varied, but on balance they said distance learning didn’t work very well. 

For starters, they said the district didn’t do enough to help them adapt to virtual teaching. The digital divide robbed some students of the necessary access. A decision to freeze grades where they stood when schools closed in March took away the motive to participate in online classes.

Bottom line: Too few students regularly participated in online classes.

But that wasn’t the biggest problem, according to Sam Radford, one of the city’s most active parent leaders.

“I think the learning is what suffered the most,” he told me.

“Some parents, their kids were on Zoom every day. Some parents said their kids were on Zoom three days a week. Some said they were on once a week, if at all. 

“Some kids logged on, some kids didn’t.

“Some teachers were doing really great when they were actually teaching kids. Some teachers just put up a video, some people just put up a worksheet. It was just inconsistent.”

Watch Radford’s complete interview with Investigative Post

Buffalo schools were not alone in their struggles.

“Statewide, parents were largely dissatisfied with distance learning,” said Dia Bryant, deputy director of The Education Trust – New York, a nonprofit advocate and policy organization.

I’ll acknowledge upfront that the pandemic thrust school districts into unchartered waters. And by most accounts, Buffalo did a good job on some fronts, most notably feeding neighborhood children through the free breakfast and lunch program. Radford, co-chair of  We The Parents of Buffalo gave them an “A+” for that.

The district also eventually distributed some 12,000 laptops and other electronic devices to students, although Radford said it took way too long, up to a couple months in some cases.

But school officials, starting with Superintendent Kriner Cash, failed to deliver on the district’s core mission — that is, to provide a quality education to its 33,000 students despite the challenges the pandemic presented.

What’s more, they’ve failed to be transparent about what’s really transpired since schools closed five months ago. The stonewalling rivals what I encountered while reporting on corruption and malfeasance in the Buffalo Billion program. 

Violated FOI Law

The district’s response to our inquiries is telling. It first granted Investigative Post’s Ali Ingersoll a group interview April 20 via Zoom with a number of administrators. One told her the district had not connected with one-third of students. Another said it was too early to assess the effectiveness of the district’s efforts. Fair enough.

But cooperation ended once we requested data. I attempted to discuss our data request with Nathaniel Kuzma, the district’s lead attorney paid $166,479 last year, but he insisted we file a request under the state Freedom of Information Law. 

I want to make sure it is processed as expeditiously as possible,” he assured me in an email.

With that pledge, I filed an FOI request April 22. “Expeditiously” didn’t happen.

Listen to Jim Heaney’s interview on WBEN

Instead, the district signaled its intent to take 20 business days to respond to my request. That’s the maximum amount of time the FOI law generally grants governments to hand over records. The 20 days came and went without a reply. I emailed Kuzma to ask what was up. He responded by writing about “this unprecedented time.” 

I then filed an appeal, claiming effective denial of my request. By law, the district had 10 business days to rule. The 10 days came and went.  I had our attorney, Michael Higgins of  the University at Buffalo Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic, write Kuzma, informing him  that Investigative Post intended to take legal action. Then, and only then, did Kuzma respond to my FOI request.

My request for student attendance? 

“The District does not maintain documents or information responsive to this request,” read the district’s reply. In red, no less.

Teacher attendance? 

“The District does not maintain documents or information responsive to this request.” 

The amount of time students and teachers spent on distance learning? 

“The District does not maintain documents or information responsive to this request.” 

And so on.

For this, the district took nearly two months to respond.

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Among the denials were references to a few records that I thought might provide answers. I again emailed Kuzma, asking for a conversation to discuss. He was unwilling to talk, writing about how busy the staff was doing a “phenomenal job under the circumstances.”

Thus stymied, I emailed Elena Cala, the district’s spokesperson. No response. 

So I called her, requesting an interview with one or more district officials who could discuss distance learning. She responded with a sputtering, hysterical tirade. I repeated my request for an interview; she was noncommittal. 

Several days later I sent an email to her with a simple subject line: “Am I getting the interview or not?” Her response: “No interview.”

Teacher experiences

With that, I started calling teachers. Speaking on background, they were a lot more forthcoming than the bureaucrats downtown.

“It hasn’t worked,” one high school teacher told me. 

Only about 10 percent of her students regularly participated in online classes. Motivation largely evaporated once the district announced grades were frozen where they were when schools closed in March. Work done the balance of the year was considered extra credit. Students realized there were no consequences for skipping online classes— and many did. 

“That grading policy put the nail in the coffin,” she said.

One middle school teacher said her response to the grading policy was to not inform pupils or their parents about it.

“They all thought everything was graded,” she said.

She partly credits that for a high participation rate — more than eight in 10 pupils regularly participated, she said. But her experience teaching summer school has not been as positive.

“A lot of kids aren’t being successful,” she said. 

Another high school teacher also reported a high level of participation, in part because the extra credit helped some of them boost their grades sufficiently to graduate. But she conceded that the quality of education suffered.

“Most kids do better with an in-a-classroom setting; most teachers do better with an in-a-classroom setting,” she said.

An elementary school teacher said more than three-quarters of his pupils participated to some degree. But participation dropped off after the grading policy was instituted and some students never engaged.

“There were some kids who never logged on,” he said.

He echoed a sentiment expressed by most teachers I interviewed: The district did little to help teachers adapt to distance learning.

“There wasn’t much said from the district level,” he said. “You were left to wing it on your own.”

Added a high school teacher: “There was zero guidance from the district when this all began. We were told to do our best.”

Technology was another problem. Some students and teachers aren’t technologically savvy. A fair number of students initially didn’t have access to a laptop or internet connection.

Teachers said they found the work habits of many high school students to be a challenge. 

“You had to wait until the afternoon because they slept,” one told me.

Another said she discovered that 6:30 in the morning was a good time to catch some of her students. She was up for the day; they were still up from the night before.

It made for strange work days for some teachers. Those who reported poor participation rates among their students said their work days were reduced to two or three hours a day.

“I haven’t worked a full day since March and it feels terrible,” one high school teacher told me. 

Others had the opposite experience. Preparing online lessons and communicating with, and sometimes cajoling, students or their parents at all hours of the day and night proved exhausting. 

“I never worked so hard in my entire life,” said a middle school teacher.

Concerns about academic achievement

The district uses online platforms that teachers told me enables administrators to track the activity of individual teachers and students. Thus, I’m skeptical of the district’s claim they couldn’t provide attendance data.

Which is worse — they don’t know or they chose to suppress the information? 

There’s a larger issue involved, however. 

Two, actually.

Student achievement among Buffalo students is poor. Only 25 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 score at proficient levels in language skills; for math, it’s only 21 percent. The numbers are even worse for black (18 and 13 percent) and brown (18 and 14 percent) students.

The many students who lag behind are that much further behind the eight-ball heading into the new school year. Most have nevertheless been moved along to the next grade.

The shortcomings of distance learning exacerbated the problem, according to Radford, immediate past president of the District Parent Coordinating Council

Parents, he said, “were concerned their children had busy work, but didn’t actually learn. They were not actually learning the material that was going to help them be prepared for the next grade or to be prepared for college, if they were seniors in high school.”

Meanwhile, taxpayers are getting a poor return for their $995 million investment in Buffalo’s public schools. That works out to some $85 million a month. What exactly did taxpayers — primarily state taxpayers, as they provide the lion’s share of the district’s revenue — get for their quarter of a billion dollars spent while the district stumbled through distance learning?