The final weeks of March in New York are always AQE’s busiest, as the New York State budget deadline approaches and our advocacy for public schools kicks into high gear. This year was no different — until suddenly and unexpectedly, it was.
An early decision to pivot online
AQE made a pivotal decision early on to cancel all in person events to focus on transitioning our community organizing and advocacy to an entirely online platform. The state budget negotiations didn’t miss a beat, so we couldn’t either. But we did need to adapt our usual in-person tactics to a time of social distancing.
New Tactics, Old Strategies: Virtual Rallies, Tele-town Halls
Within 48 hours of making the decision to cancel our in-person events and rallies, our new fully online engagement strategy was well underway. The first step was to make sure parents had the tools and skills to fully participate in our planned online engagements and advocacy.
Our small team created and hosted two webinar trainings on social media engagement, with over 30 participants.
Just 24 hours later, we hosted our first-ever Virtual Rally — a pivot from our original plan to bus parents to Albany in person that same day. We created an online toolkit asking participants to take 3 actions over a 3 hour period. In the day leading up to the rally, we reached out to community members to identify people who could actively participate. Combining our traditional organizing outreach with a digital platform proved to be a huge success: we had over 43,300 Twitter impressions in just 3 hours, with over 200 people using the toolkit to post with us and send a total of 600 emails. And the parents who participated in our social media training were able to use their new knowledge to contribute to our expanded reach online.
One Day at a Time
Coming off the success of our first virtual-only event, and with just a week left before the budget deadline, we began issuing daily digital engagement toolkits to our supporters. Each email included up-to-date phone scripts, digital letter campaigns, and social media content reflecting the developments of the past 24 hours. Overall, in the past 3 weeks we were able to add nearly 3,000 new activists to our email list, and saw a nearly 100% increase in the number of actions taken over the same period last year.
Meanwhile, we collaborated with our coalition partners to broaden our reach, co-hosting two regional virtual town halls, as well as a statewide tele-town hall that had over 4000 participants.
Budget Updates, from Afar
One of the key roles that AQE plays for New Yorkers in the final weeks of March is to be the eyes and ears on the ground at the State Capitol giving updates on the education developments as they happen. This year, the State Capitol closed to visitors. Our staff began giving daily updates via Facebook Live, followed by a daily Instagram Live interview with a student, parent or a state legislator. These videos averaged 2,000 views each day.
With the final hours of the budget negotiations, we organized a second Virtual Rally using a similar successful format as our first — 3 actions over 3 hours, with a bilingual online toolkit and supported by individual outreach from organizers. This time, the rally was statewide in scope, and we had even greater participation: 75,400 impressions, with engagement stretching well into the following day.
The Challenges Ahead
With the sudden emergence of a global pandemic that has hit New York more than any other state and a sharp decline in state revenues, the fight to protect students and their education is more pivotal than ever. The Governor has threatened massive cuts to our public schools, one of the largest spending items in the state budget. As a result of our advocacy, New York’s schools will continue to see the same spending levels as last year. But no increase in state aid to schools as costs and needs rise, means districts will be forced to make hard choices as they feel budget constraints grow. Here’s a full breakdown of the outcomes of the New York State enacted budget. Last week we had over 200 parents, educators, students and community leaders join us for a virtual budget debrief to learn about the details of the enacted budget.
Despite the fact that AQE has adapted to the new realities of organizing in the time of COVID-19, there are deeply concerning crises in education. We see huge inconsistencies in the quality of remote learning and the access to necessary technology. Students will inevitably suffer learning loss much greater than the summer period that sets back so many low income students, immigrant youth, and students of color each year. Educational learning loss due to COVID-19 is a civil rights crisis. AQE fights this threat aggressively throughout this year’s state budget crisis, but cuts to education in this budget cycle mean our most vulnerable students are at risk of falling even further behind.
Coronavirus: In communities where kids lack technology, online school is a big challenge, LoHud
Foundation Aid Freeze: It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again, Spectrum News
New York State budget deal may cause NYC, other districts to tighten their belts, Chalkbeat
Rochester community groups hold ‘State of the City’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak, WHAM