New York City’s 1.1 million public school students are well into their third month of remote learning thanks to the pandemic that forced Mayor Bill de Blasio to shift in-person school to a virtual format.
Delfina Warrick, a science teacher at JHS 383 Philippa Schuyler middle school in Bushwick, said the prospect of ongoing remote learning has prompted her to organize so-called “scream sessions” for colleagues, inspired by this popular video. The scream happens once a week, occasionally followed by a virtual happy hour. “It’s just a chance to let it all out,” said Warrick.
Unfortunately, for Warrick, it’s not over. On Wednesday, de Blasio announced summer school will also be online. Come fall, there’s a strong possibility that virtual learning will continue for all schools in some form or another.
With no clear end in sight, Gothamist/WNYC gathered firsthand wisdom from those on the frontlines to discuss how the city (and other school districts) can improve remote learning for the long haul. Here are their top five takeaways based off several interviews with parents, teachers, students, and experts:
Stop, collaborate, and listen
It’s time to take stock. “We had three days for teachers to turn around their teaching for an unknown amount of time. That’s an impossible task,” said Roberta Lenger Kang at Columbia University’s Teachers College, adding the very fact it’s even worked “is a true testament to teachers’ dedication.”
But now that everyone has had a few months of experience, Kang said officials should identify and promote best practices. The New York City Department of Education recently sent out a survey to parents and is processing the results. The United Federation of Teachers, representing public school teachers, has been holding focus groups for members as well.
Still, stakeholders including teachers, parents, and students say they want additional opportunities to share their views. Some have suggested ending school early to facilitate listening sessions and carve out additional time for training.
One concern, teachers said, is being too optimistic about school reopening in the fall and not preparing adequately for remote learning now.
In a statement to Gothamist/WNYC, Danielle Filson, a DOE spokesperson, said remote learning is a "learning experience for all of us."
“We’ve continued to adjust policies and practices that make remote learning a more enriching experience each day," said Filson. "We appreciate the flexibility and patience of our families and educators and will continue to build on feedback and lessons learned to improve remote learning for as long as it is needed.”
Get on the same (digital) page.
Zoom. Google Classroom. Google Meet. Microsoft Teams. Class Dojo. Students, parents, and teachers said they’re overwhelmed by all the different platforms schools are using for instruction. They want the DOE to choose just a handful of platforms that work best.
“There needs to be a smaller number of high-quality platforms,” said teacher John McCrann, a public school teacher who took part in a recent UFT focus group talk on remote learning.
Families also want more uniformity on what counts as attendance, and when and how to upload assignments. Naomi Pena has four kids in the school system, and even her twins’ classes at the same school have different requirements. “With my twins, I have one who uploads their work by subject and one who uploads work by day,” she said. “I have to navigate four kids in four different learning communities and four sets of teachers. It’s exhausting.”
Teachers said they also want more clarity around expectations. Some districts in the city have hammered out new MOUs for remote learning, outlining the hours teachers are expected to spend engaging with students and how those interactions should look like.
In Shanghai, Kang of Columbia University, said officials identified teachers who were doing remote learning best, and then dispatched them to schools for training sessions.
Meanwhile, some parents said they could also use some extra help. Remote learning is especially challenging for parents with little experience using technology, who speak little or no English, and/or have children with disabilities. Barbara Glassman, executive director ofINCLUDEnyc, a nonprofit that promotes access to all students, suggests setting up tech support at borough offices.
“The school system can provide more support around technology and technology platforms,” she said.
Do it live. Sometimes.
Some students spend much of the day in front of a computer while their teachers provide live instruction. Others aren’t having any live classes at all. Many students and teachers said they prefer live learning.
In addition, there was a general consensus by those interviewed that scheduling live classes is logistically impossible for many teachers who are juggling childcare, parents with multiple children, or students who are caring for siblings. It works better when classes are smaller, and when families have more space to spread out, which may be why live lessons are more prevalent at private schools than public ones. Some teachers said they’ve fallen into a pattern of live instruction once or twice a week while offering office hours or small breakout groups outside class.
“Live instruction is critical,” said teacher Daniel DeFazio.
He compared it to exercise. Some people can work out on their own. Others need to go to the gym or work with a trainer to stay on track.
Since March, the DOE has distributed almost 300,000 WiFi-enabled iPads to students, an unprecedented feat that officials hope will drastically diminish the city’s digital divide. Certain internet companies have also offered free access.
Still, some students are struggling with the internet and technology. Students and teachers often lose their connection. As a result, they fall out of a video chat or can’t see something that’s been posted online.
David Price, a public school teacher, said many students don’t have enough bandwidth to participate fully in classes.
“Sometimes it’s fine and sometimes I sound like the Peanuts teacher,” said Price, referring to the character in the Peanuts cartoon whose verbal instructions are interpreted as honking sounds by Charlie Brown and his friends. “If there’s going to be more remote learning in the fall, there’s going to need to be very serious tech infrastructure that supports the more vulnerable kids.”
In the meantime, students who are grateful for the free iPads noted it’s difficult to type without a real key pad.
David Kirkland, executive director of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, recommended that educators should embrace the fact that remote learning will be different from traditional school.
“We have people taking what they did in physical spaces and dumping it into Zoom,” he said.
Instead, he said schools should consider smaller classes that meet less frequently, with lessons tailored to students’ varying needs. At the same time, many teachers said emotional support for students processing grief, anxiety, and trauma must be central in the coming year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said that such a policy will be central in the next school year.
And remember: It’s not all bad. While the internet is rife with complaints and memes lampooning remote learning, educators said there are a few good things about it. Teachers report parents are more engaged than ever with some parents learning English for the first time alongside their children.
In a few cases, students who had trouble connecting with their coursework before are thriving because they can work at their own pace and around other personal responsibilities. Students and their parents are learning how to use devices and platforms they never used before.
Educators said it’s possible to view this transitional time as a reset, an opportunity to overcome some of the inequities in the system by truly expanding digital access, allowing flexibility for students who need it, and becoming more inclusive for students with disabilities.
“We don’t get moments like this very often,” said Kirkland. “We can redesign education for the people it’s never been designed for.”
Families in need of help with their LTE- and WiFi-enabled iPad should reach out to the DOE help desk by calling (718) 935-5100 or create a support request online at https://www.nycenet.edu/technicalsupportforfamily. This helps the DOE to address connectivity issues as they arise.