Stumbling Towards a School Re-Opening: Can NYC Successfully Bring a Million Kids Back to Hybrid Schools

At the core of the revival is New York City slowly and safely returning to normalcy, stores and restaurants reopening, workers returning to offices, and, children returning to schools, all within parameters that do not result in COVID outbreaks.

Spain, Italy, France and Great Britain all thought they had turned the corner only to see COVID numbers spike. As we move further and further into colder weather and more and more indoor activities will we see a spike in New York City?

The COVID data in New York State is widely available online.

COVID School Report Cards: https://schoolcovidreportcard.health.ny.gov/#/home

COVID by zip code: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/nyregion/new-york-city-coronavirus-cases.html

NYC COVID Positive Testing Rate: https://forward.ny.gov/percentage-positive-results-region-dashboard

The most complicated issue: whether to reopen schools, and, if so, how do you both assure safety for children and staffs and provide both in-school and remote options?

New York State required each school district to complete a plan; the plans were very long and not particularly useful.

See the 109-page NYC Plan here

As the NYC moved closer to September more and more questions arose, the teacher (UFT) and the supervisor (CSA) unions demurred: the schools were not ready to open, safety protocols were not in place and the in-person/remote models promoted by the chancellor were not workable.

On the verge of the reopening the mayor delayed the reopening for students, the union held workable plans were not in place; finally the mayor, the chancellor and the unions agreed on a plan, a complicated and flexible plan.

From the Department website:

In-Person Learning Start Dates

Children who are enrolled in fully remote programs will still begin full-day instruction on Monday, September 21.

Children in blended learning will be learning remotely on Monday, September 21 until their in-person start date as outlined below. Students should report to school according to their specific blended learning schedules – check with your child’s school to see when they should report.

  • Students in Grades 3K and Pre-K: in-Person Learning begins on Monday, September 21
  • All grades in District 75 schools: In-Person Learning begins on Monday, September 21
  • All Elementary Schools (K-5 and K-8) including students in Grades 6-8 in K-8 schools: In-Person Learning begins on Tuesday, September 29
  • Middle Schools (Grades 6-8): In-Person Learning begins on Thursday, October 1
  • High Schools (Grades 9-12): In-Person Learning begins on Thursday, October 1

The models include in-person teachers, remote instruction teachers and well as combined in-person/remote teachers. Schools are uncertain about how many families will show up and how many will not, schools have been contacting parents since the teachers returned to school and creating cohorts, groups of kids in in-person and kids in fully remote cohorts, cohorts that change daily.

About 20% of teachers/supervisors have received medical accommodations: their instruction will be fully remote; however the in-person and medically accommodated remote teachers do not necessarily reflect the needs of the school.

The department failed to realize that as one teacher teaches a cohort of kids in-person another teacher is teaching the other section of the cohort online: will you need additional teachers? Can you find teachers in this climate? How can the city be considering layoffs and hire more teachers?

The chancellor was woefully slow in responding, he sent out a number of models, one of which was “recommended,” and the models did not fit many schools. In the midst of the planning the chancellor attempted to dissolve the Affinity District, the 147 schools that have wide discretion in organization and instruction methodologies, with impressive success. The Affinity Schools pushed back, the chancellor backed off.

The mayor finally acquiesced and agreed to authorize the hiring of additional teachers as well as assign staff in central and district offices to schools, how they will be utilized is unclear.

At the heart of the confusion is the chancellor’s belief that one size fits all; a hierarchic structure would address all the issues/problems. Last year the chancellor created a new position, executive superintendent, adding another level between the chancellor and classrooms. A year ago Carranza promoted Edustats; kids take diagnostic/proscriptive reading/math tests; teachers adjust their teaching to fit the proscriptions, and, voila, increases in student achievement. Alas, we’ve been doing that for decades, without positive results.  Change begins at the school level, not in a paramilitary structure.

Constant pushback from the unions, pushback that came from teachers and principals forced the mayor to listen, and, eventually make the changes that will allow in-person and remote instruction to begin, albeit, with hesitancy.

Eliza Shapiro, the NY Times primary education reporter, posted a snarky article blaming the “powerful” unions for forcing delays and requirements that may not work. See here and comments (including mine) here. Read the comments, they are an excellent cross-section.

The unions reflect members; over the months probably hundreds of focus groups and regular online Town Halls. An opposition union caucus argues for no in-person teaching, all remote. Most teachers favor in-person with social distancing, which can only be accomplished with cohorts to reduce class size, and, teachers are nervous, cautious about the question of safety

There are no “good” solutions, the only way to assure safety is mask wearing and social distancing and the only way to achieve social distancing is smaller cohorts, and, of course, a “second wave” can overturn the best of plans.

From school to school the “solutions,” probably “fixes” are a better term, vary. For example in one school the only science teacher  has a medical accommodation, how do you provide in-person science instruction?  In this cohort driven environment how do you provide mandated special education services? 

In my discussion with school leaders up to now operations, getting the school up and running has been paramount. The instructional side creates other challenges: “integrating” in-person and remote instruction, and, teaching a much smaller cohort of students. How does instruction differ?  How do teachers jointly plan online? 

When I asked school leaders what was their biggest challenge there was widespread agreement: the constant last minute changes in policies, implementing the “blended learning agreement” and getting the kids online every day for the entire school day.

On Thursday, another last minute agreement was reached that will allow teachers who are fully remote to work from their homes, see agreement here and Chalkbeat discussion here.

Also on Thursday rumors flashed across the city, the chancellor resigned, the rumors were denied, and no announcements followed.  Are the mayor and the chancellor on different wavelengths?

I understand the teacher union responding to needs of members and I understand the principal’s union frustrated by last minute changes that will require changes in teacher assignments days before the full hybrid re-opening.

A “second wave” could undercut all the planning push schools back to fully remote (if positive testing exceeds 3%) and the increasingly complex hybrid models can falter, the apparent “collaborative relationship” between City Hall and the Unions can stumble, the chancellor could resign, a million kids, 1600 schools, each school with different staffing issues, and, yes, is there an agreed upon curriculum? An enigma wrapped in a conundrum.

On the plus side schools have not seen and explosion of COVID hotspots, See Washington Post here.

On October 1, all grades, pre-K to 12, will be returning to schooling, in-person and remote, I’m optimistic, I have confidence in the tens of thousands of teachers and thousands of school supervisors, all struggling to address the needs of our millions kids.

Fingers crossed.

One thought on “Stumbling Towards a School Re-Opening: Can NYC Successfully Bring a Million Kids Back to Hybrid Schools

  1. The question no one seems to be pursuing is what were the Mayor and the Chancellor doing to plan for school reopening in March, April, May. etc. They knew schools would have to reopen and should have known that the reopening would require planning since the virus was unlikely to be gone. NYC has done a great job of getting the infection rate down, but it is not zero and small spikes are occurring all over the City. The issues with ventilation are longstanding. I was dealing, in my role as a Union Rep, with questions about the ventilation on the MLK campus as many as fifteen years ago. Ventilation in the current situation is about how often the air in the room is replaced with fresh or well-filtered air, not whether windows open. The tests and necessary work could, and should, have been done in June, July and early August not at the last minute. The models and the staffing needs for them could have been worked through on a similar timetable. The Mayor and the DOE failed miserably in planning and parents and teachers are paying for that failure.

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