The city Department of Education has unveiled new guidelines for the city’s ambitious blended learning plan, but educators said the guidance is unrealistic and calls for far more staffing in a time of fiscal crisis.
The blended learning guidelines released Wednesday lay out general structures for students while they’re in classrooms and engaged in remote-learning. The guidelines ask principals to assign teachers to one type of teaching: in-person, fully remote, or to handle the remote part of a hybrid schedule.
The DOE guidance also proposes expectations for live instruction for students, from about 15 minutes of daily synchronous instruction for three-year-olds to as much as 210 minutes a day for high schoolers. Synchronous instruction is live interaction between a student and the teacher, while asynchronous teaching and learning happens on a student’s own schedule as a complement to the live instruction.
Principals are encouraged not to assign teachers to both remote and in-person instruction, the DOE said; rather, a new staffer called a Virtual Content Specialist will help coordinate instruction for a student between the remote teacher and the in-person teacher.
“Students are going to get support every day,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press briefing Thursday. “What was important was to determine a good working model to work together to maximize what we can do for our kids. This agreement really respects our professionals, our educators, it respects their need for time to plan.”
Teachers have worried about doing double duty between in-person and remote classes. De Blasio said the new agreement with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, works to address that concern while providing additional clarity to principals.
But several principals said the newly-released guidance does the opposite. Nancy Harris, principal of the Spruce Street School in Manhattan, said the guidance is “too little too late.”
“It is not sufficient guidance to actually implement blended learning the way they say it,” she said, referring to the discrete modes of teaching. “It doesn't account for staff shortages. It doesn't account for the specifics that I've already worked through as a school community.”
The DOE's new guidelines raise the question of staffing and funding: does the city have enough teachers and the ability to pay for them? It’s also unclear who will pay for the new Virtual Content Specialist roles, as the DOE said those will be centrally funded roles that schools may also choose to fund themselves.
City officials acknowledged that’s a concern: “We are dealing with a mathematical problem with variables that change every day. Staffing has been and will continue to be something we’re monitoring and are concerned about,” said Linda Chen, Chief Academic Officer, at the press briefing. "The math would indicate that’s a variable we have to solve for.”
“Today’s announcement may not answer every question you have, she added, but “it does endeavor to address essential questions.”
But many administrators and educators said they’ve been asking for answers about staffing all summer, and the new guidelines are not the solution. This comes on the heels of other recent big announcements concerning air quality and outdoor learning that add to the sense that the mayor and the schools chancellor are rushing, and may need more time and money to safely open the nation’s largest school system during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The guidance makes it clear that many schools will be short-staffed and the DOE will be unable to adequately staff schools without a significant increase in funding,” the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators principals union said to its membership in an email Wednesday, adding that the union would demand “an immediate response and clarification from the DOE.”
Several principals told WNYC/Gothamist there’s no way they’ll be able to staff the in-person and remote learning cohorts separately without dramatically increasing the number of teachers. Chancellor Richard Carranza has promised to deploy substitutes and other certified personnel to schools, but principals said they haven’t gotten any specifics.
“It’s very deflating,” said Reginald Landeau Jr., principal of M.S. 216 in Queens. “Most principals are problem solvers. But if the variables are continually changing, including what came out yesterday, it’s very hard for me to wrap my head around what’s the best solution to this problem.”
In addition, principals said they’re frustrated that the new guidelines come after they were required to deliver plans and schedules to the education department and parents. Some said it will mean drastically rethinking plans they’d already put in place.
Principals also have to account for changing enrollment numbers for in-person versus fully remote learning. “The numbers change every day,” Landeau said. “That’s the quagmire principals are in.”
An assistant principal in the Bronx who requested anonymity was more blunt, saying, “It’s batshit crazy.”
“I’m at a standstill,” said another Brooklyn principal thoroughly stumped by the staffing puzzle.
Among other unanswered questions: Principals said they worry about special education classes that are required under the law to have two co-teachers, and wonder if those teachers will both have to be in-person. They say they also need clarity around how to redeploy staff, including licensing requirements.
“I think the both convoluted and complex guidance that we got last night is all the more reason why we need additional time to plan, and more time to open,” said Harris.
The CSA as well as the United Federation of Teachers union have called on de Blasio to push back the start of in-person school, tentatively scheduled for September 10th though no official date has been announced.
But asked whether he planned to delay school despite passionate pushback from principals, teachers, and some families, de Blasio maintained Thursday that he does not: “Who’s on my side? The vast majority of parents.”