ALBANY — State Education Department leaders struggled to communicate with, or get a response, from former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his top aides throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as they waited on safety guidelines for New York schools, they told legislators during a hearing Tuesday.

Members of the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, chaired by Assemblymember Deborah J. Glick, D-Manhattan, questioned several state education officials Tuesday in the Legislative Office Building in Albany during the chamber’s hearing on COVID-19’s impact on the future of higher education.

“We want to understand and explore how the pandemic has changed higher education as it relates to instruction, admissions, enrollment, retention, student life and career services,” Glick said. “We’re particularly interested in the needs for additional financial aid, access to mental health services, and issues around food insecurity. And has there been any indication that adult learners are seeking new educational opportunity to find either new careers, or to improve their skills in the jobs that they currently have?”

State Commissioner of Education Betty A. Rosa noted the lacking communication from Cuomo’s administration and state Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard A. Zucker in issuing COVID guidance — or releasing conflicting guidelines — to the Education Department throughout the pandemic.

Communication has improved since Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul took office Aug. 24, Rosa said.

Former New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett will become the state’s Health Department leader today. Rosa said education officials are hopeful the transparency will continue under Bassett’s leadership.

“We have seen some enormous levels of increased communication in terms of our department and DOH,” Rosa said. “... There’s a sense of moving the ship in one direction with consistency.”

SED officials continue to have conversations with teachers, administrators and students of various experience levels to evaluate remote learning models as opposed to in-person classroom instruction, Rosa said.

Leaving the decision to use one model or the other, or a combination hybrid approach, continues to be each local school district’s decision.

The department will continue to gather information before the 2022-23 academic year, Rosa said.

“We all know education is an economic engine,” she said. “It’s not a (one-size-fits-all) response. We found many students that really learn very well with the online or the combination, so we’re trying to gather all that information.”

SED issued guidance in July allowing schools to have flexibility in how they allow students to use technology and remote learning.

“While we felt that students needed to come back to school, we allowed districts to make decisions and they continue to have this flexibility to make decisions that are in the best interest of their students, both collectively and individually, that are consistent with the communities they serve,” SED Senior Deputy Commissioner Jim Baldwin said.

SED is creating a local planning group for higher education to continue discussions, but will invite additional representatives of the public school system, the business community and other people who have a stake in the future of the state’s higher education.

STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK

State University of New York Chancellor James J. Malatras oversees the 64-campus higher education system suffering an enrollment crisis — like many higher education systems across the nation.

SUNY’s total enrollment is down 4.7%, or 18,600 students across its 64 campuses, from fall 2020, according to preliminary fall 2021 enrollment figures. SUNY has 92,386 fewer students than it did 10 years ago — a change of 19.7%.

“We do think we’ve been too reliant on tuition over the last decade or so, and we think that is impacting enrollment,” Malatras said during testimony to lawmakers Tuesday.

Enrollment at SUNY’s 30 community colleges is down 45% following a consecutive reduction over the last decade.

Millions of people changed careers, retired or left the workforce as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the ongoing student body decline.

The societal changes have increased SUNY’s number of part-time students and professionals ages 25 to 44 looking to expand their skills or change industries.

Malatras on Tuesday stressed the need for the Legislature and legislative leaders to continue to make robust investments in the SUNY system as 2022-23 Fiscal Year budget talks begin, in spite of the enrollment woes.

“If you invest in SUNY, it will pay dividends, and you’ve seen that time and time again,” Malatras said. “It’s sometimes where you don’t get that investment you see the increase in the spiral ... we can’t hire diverse faculty, you can’t get more students from underrepresented communities. But we do want to do things differently.”

Malatras vowed SUNY would submit a robust budget request to the Legislature to meet the system’s goals, freeze tuition and fund targeted programs to help transition post-pandemic.

Some SUNY community colleges may be combined into one facility to reduce competition and cost.

The number of SUNY students applying to work as a teacher or in the education workforce was declining about 39% before the pandemic.

“And that is now only growing,” Malatras said. “Coupled with enhanced retirements, you are going to see a teaching shortage in the state and a nursing shortage, grow and grow.”

Mental health, food insecurity, housing and other quality-of-life issues have plagued students during the pandemic. About 34,000 of SUNY’s roughly 375,600 students self-identify as having a disability.

Malatras urged the need for a more centralized model for students to have one place to request help or get the support they need to be successful within their programs.

Students with disabilities would benefit from more robust individualized learning programs.

SUNY will invest $24 million of its federal coronavirus relief to improve the system’s mental health services for students, faculty and staff, Malatras said.

“We’re doing a whole range of things to meet the various challenges,” the chancellor added. “We’re not just focusing in on one area, we’re trying to meet the areas of demand where there’s demand. We’re trying to keep cash in every category.”

SUNY’s overall graduation rate is 68% and 74% within Educational Opportunity Programs, which provides students who may not have been offered admission with access, academic support and financial aid to succeed in a degree program.

“If you give enhanced opportunities to students like the EOP program, they have a better chance of success,” Malatras said.

The racial diversity within SUNY’s student body continues to increase. About 27% of SUNY students are underrepresented minorities, compared to 19.6% in fall 2011.

Faculty diversity continues to be low and needs to improve to equitably represent the student body, Malatras said.

Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, is a member of the chamber’s Higher Education Committee and listened to and questioned each witness.

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