This article originally appeared in Urban Matters, a publication by our colleagues at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.
There can no longer be any doubt that New York City’s plan for reopening schools is falling apart. By insisting that school buildings be opened for face-to-face learning, rather than following the lead of other major cities who have put all teaching online while the coronavirus crisis continues, the mayor has wasted precious time for preparing teachers for online instruction, and missed early opportunities to repurpose school building spaces for precisely the kinds of social services he feared communities in need would be going without.
We’ve now had a full month of false starts and last-minute stops; confusing and poorly explained changes of course; a narrowly averted teachers strike based on fears of unsafe conditions in the schools; just this Sunday, a vote of “no confidence” in the mayor and his schools chancellor by the principals’ union; following that, the mayor’s acknowledgement that should a new and worrying spike in citywide coronavirus cases persist, the entire school reopening project could be in jeopardy; and throughout, a cacophony of criticism from other elected officials, editorial pages, and, inevitably, on social media. For already shell-shocked parents, the entire experience has had the reassuring calm and dignity of a dumpster fire.
But there’s a way to put it out, and still get the school year to succeed even as October begins. More importantly, there is a way of saving this school year so children who need the most help get it.
The mayor mistakenly understood online learning as contradictory to the kinds of face-to-face services he rightly knew children in need require. He put issues of disparity and equity above all else. What he didn’t realize, however, is that he got it backwards. Online learning is not opposed to equitable education during this pandemic. Online learning is what makes equitable solutions possible.
Public schools perform two core functions: formal academic instruction; and non-academic social services. So: Separate those two functions. Move all formal instruction online, which in turn would free principals up to repurpose school building space to meet each community’s unique needs.
First: Moving academic instruction online would instantly solve one seemingly insurmountable problem. Public health requirements demand reduced class sizes. However, all students must still be engaged by teachers every day. The result is an unnecessarily spawned teacher shortage. Move all teaching online and that’s no longer an issue.
What’s more, fully remote instruction would permit teachers to focus their energies on improving the quality of online teaching. As it stands, many teachers are planning for both in-person and remote instructional models, which is an unrealistic and burdensome expectation. At the same time, the City can bolster the support resources available for teachers teaching online, including more aggressively promoting existing academic resources and partnering with external organizations who specialize in coaching teachers in online instruction.
Quality online instruction is not simply a matter of uploading worksheets to Google Classroom. Rather, it requires teachers to rethink the fundamentals of how they communicate with, engage, and assess students. This is especially vital if we value teaching in culturally responsive ways, a goal the City’s Department of Education emphasized prior to the pandemic’s shutdown of in-classroom instruction in March.
For instance, when learning about students at the start of the year, teachers might ask them to share in small groups of peers a little about their cultural backgrounds, as a way of better understanding aspects of each other’s identities. In a classroom, creating small groups is fairly straightforward (though always trickier than new teachers expect). But how does a teacher create an effective small group online? In person, a teacher might easily read children’s faces and identify when a group needs attention. But how does a teacher do that on Zoom? That all takes time to learn, especially if teachers are also expected to teach face-to-face. But if they can focus their energy solely on the ins and outs of online instruction, teachers’ growth will likely be far greater.
Second: Moving instruction online would also simultaneously release millions of square feet of school building space that principals could safely repurpose for the very kinds of social services that the mayor correctly believes matter to families in need: health checkups with school nurses; meetings with guidance counselors; access to free meals; enrichment activities like socially distanced games, clubs, and tutoring. To be clear, school buildings could also be used to provide child care for younger school-aged students or even school-hosted learning pods where small groups of students use the school’s Wi-Fi connection to complete their online classwork with staff oversight – students at school, teachers at home.
Principals could also leverage outdoor space for additional enrichment opportunities. They could partner with community-based organizations to offer social-emotional development sessions to students. They could organize small group counseling safely. Principals can get very creative with building space when their teachers are working remotely; it removes the logistical challenges of navigating the teachers union contract, especially as pandemic-related policies shift by the day. It should also be noted that there is a precedent for what I am describing: the City received praise for the establishment of regional enrichment centers serving the children of essential workers during the spring pandemic peak. Empowering principals to use their buildings in a similar way during the current school year would build upon that success.
Children of this city deserve adults in their lives who have the resources and space to care for them and teach them well. As this sorry September has demonstrated, it is simply not possible to do so under the current school re-opening plan. So a paradigm shift is needed. Let’s create expansive possibilities for how to meet children’s needs. The City must pry apart schools’ academic and social functions, and in so doing, release our educators’ creativity while beginnig to rebuild public trust.