With plans that seem to shift almost daily, there is one common denominator for most of the 1 million New York City public school students: Remote learning will remain the dominant presence for their school year beginning on September 21st.
Originally, schools were going to reopen to welcome students back in classrooms on the first day; instead, the first in-person day has been pushed back to on September 29th for K-5 and K-8 students and October 1st for middle and high schoolers—and on September 21st, all students will begin the 2020-2021 school year remotely.
Parents, students, and teachers have been worried, after a rocky spring remote learning experience, which saw problems from logistical hurdles and technical glitches to exposing the socioeconomic inequities that pre-dated the pandemic. The Department of Education says it has made improvements, but teachers are predicting a poorly executed rollout of remote learning.
“The DOE has spent NO time providing professional development for staff to improve their remote learning techniques. They change policy on a daily basis, if not more often, which in turn causes teachers to be changed from in-person to blended to full remote, leaving no time to plan for instruction,” said Michael DeShields, a teacher at P.S. 3 in the West Village. “To say that we are worse off is a HORRENDOUS understatement.”
As it stands, 58% of public school students—or about 580,000 of the student body—have opted for a mix of remote and in-person instruction known as blended learning ahead of first day of school. The other approximately 420,000 students will exclusively learn remotely.
Students slogged through the semester when in-person learning shifted remote learning on March 21st. It resulted in an average 87% of all students logging on each day last semester, according to DOE figures. That number dropped significantly for summer school students, where 23% of students never even logged on. "Participation" could also mean as little as checking in for attendance and then turning off the the device.
Also, it took weeks for the DOE to distribute devices to families who requested them.
While the DOE did not fully answer a list of questions from Gothamist on how it has improved remote learning, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said on Wednesday that the city is looking to get a discounted rate to cover Wi-Fi costs while also providing roughly 40,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, as Chalkbeat first reported in June.
“We’ve also set up on our website a place where students, or families can go and indicate that they need a device or they need internet connectivity. Also, they call 311. And then I know that our schools as they’re preparing for the start of the school year have reached out to families and students to make sure that they do have a device, they do have connectivity, and if they don’t we’re in communication with them to provide them with either those devices or that connectivity,” Carranza said on Wednesday.
He also has insisted that training sessions on remote learning were offered during the summer. Though 2,000 workshops were held in the spring, with some 30,000 teachers (representing less than half of the total number of public school teachers) participating, it wasn't enough for some instructors.
Liat Olenick, a science teacher in Brooklyn, told Gothamist in August, "I have gotten notice of zero trainings about remote learning. Many of my colleagues and other teachers I know around the city have also done zero remote learning training."
The challenge of teaching in a virtual setting has been a pressure point between the teachers' union and city, with the DOE finally admitting on Wednesday that the earlier goal of having live or "synchronous" instruction every day for blended learning students was aggressive for the start of school.
"This is uncharted territory for all of us, and the DOE keeps changing the rules making it next to impossible to adequately staff the schools. They aren't providing the additional centrally funded teachers, as the mayor and chancellor promised in multiple press conferences," said DeShields.
Each blended class will have an in-person teacher and a remote teacher. Some in-person classes, at higher grade levels, will utilize online instruction. Though Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio did announce this week that 2,000 additional teachers will be dispatched to help address staffing shortages, thousands more teachers will still be required—forcing the city to a postponed, staggered in-person start.
Which means students, parents, and teachers are bracing themselves for remote learning on Monday. In March, some 320,000 internet-enabled smart tablets—at least 300,00 iPads—were distributed to students for remote learning. Other devices included Chromebooks. Internet service providers such as Optimum, Spectrum, and Verizon offered free Wi-Fi access in the spring, to serve the roughly 500,000 families with no internet at home.
But teachers are left wondering whether students will even be able to log on. Once school ended, free Wi-Fi access stopped. In an interview with Gothamist on Tuesday, Carranza explained that the city is in talks identifying “some philanthropic, some foundational support in case we can’t get everybody with free Wi-Fi.”
Representatives for Optimum, Spectrum, and Verizon did not return a request for comment.
A Wi-Fi-enabled device is only one piece of the puzzle. As Carranza has repeated bromides in press conferences and town halls with parents, repeating phrases like “perfect be the enemy of the good” and “building this plane as we’re flying it,” Lynn Bernstein, an art teacher at P.S. 39 who retired in July, noticed her students were struggling. Normally, she would be able to comfort them personally. Now, that option was taken away.
"For starters, it is impossible to reach out across Zoom to a child who is curled up on their bed in a corner, or is hiding under the table, or is in tears, or is frustrated or angry. I had all of those in the spring, in all grades," recalled Bernstein. "In the classroom, the teacher could quietly approach the child to give support and find out what the problem was. Reaching out across Zoom is a public event. NYCDOE Zoom has disabled private chats, and the youngest can’t type anyway."
Bernstein admits there were some gains, including the level of increased engagement from students with ADD or ADHD.
Teachers' and students' greater dependency on technology has also run up against the bureaucracy of the DOE. At a school in Lower Manhattan, an English teacher who requested anonymity so they can speak comfortably about the remote learning experience, dispelled some myths behind the kind of resources available at public schools.
"I think something that people in the private sector don't understand is we don't have a whole tech support department that we can just ring up at a moment's notice to help us with issues, breakdowns, or hiccups with the many new applications we've been encouraged to try out," said the English teacher. "All throughout remote learning, and in planning for blended learning this fall, it has been incredibly trying to get the help we need with getting everyone in the school on board with using and understanding the same programs the same way."
Tech support at the teacher's school proved challenging, with only one part-time technician to assist a staff of about 40 employees.
“We are trying to get laptops set up for students who will be attending in person, but it is next to impossible to do that in the amount of time we have and with the number of staff we have," said the English teacher. "But the many new applications teachers have been using has also led to difficulty on the student end, as every new potentially time-saving program is yet another new system for students to log into, navigate, and learn how to use.”
A parent in Brooklyn described described a Byzantine process for getting his child ready for remote learning, with the school sending a 12-slide presentation with six different video links, requiring two different email addresses to access to two different online learning and information platforms.
The DOE has tech support for families, but a fifth grade teacher in Sunset Park said, "When they call the DOE for tech support, they were given a ‘ticket’ and told that they will be called in 3-4 days."
Another teacher, who also requested anonymity, lamented that six months after schools went completely remote, it doesn’t appear lessons were learned.
“I place all the blame for all future issues with online learning at the mayor's feet,” said the teacher. “He had six months to evaluate what went wrong and what went well, and he decided to do the absolute minimum to make both in-person and remote instruction non-viable. If he had spent the last six months beefing up the DOE's tech strategy, we might have been able to go full remote without a hitch. If he had spent the last six months beefing up the DOE's in-person strategy, we might have been able to return to the buildings without a hitch. He has done neither, opting instead to punt this issue to the schools and see what they do with it.”
The Mayor’s Office did not return a request for comment.
Brigid Bergin contributed to this report.