Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Yet another last minute DOE revision of their school reopening plan & even more crowded classes & less live teaching for NYC kids


UPDATE (9/17/20):  This morning, the Mayor announced that in-person learning for students opting into blended education would be delayed once again.  The new schedule is below.

  • Kids in 3K, preK and District 75 ONLY will return to school on Monday.
  • Kids in K-5, K-8 schools will return on Sept 29.
  • Kids in middle and high school will return on Oct 1.

At the same time, the Mayor and Chancellor said they had already hired or reassigned 2,000 more teachers; and were in the process of hiring 2,600 additional educators from CUNY adjuncts and graduate students to address the staffing shortages.  Meanwhile the IBO came out with an estimate that schools need 11,000 more teachers, at an approximate cost of $20.4M per week.

While phasing-in school attendance is a good idea, and is being done in other districts including Boston, this delay creates even more chaos and confusion.  Again, DOE had six months to come up with a safe, orderly and sustainable plan and utterly failed.  Also unacceptable is the fact that they are allowing class size limits for students receiving remote learning to double, to 64-68 kids per class, when research and experience shows that even smaller classes than usual are necessary for remote learning to have any chance of success.

Yesterday, we also heard from parents that their children’s remote learning classes were even bigger than this – including reports of 72 -129 students per class, which is outrageous and a complete violation of their right to an adequate education.  Please email me at info@classsizematters.org to let me know what class sizes your children are getting.

As DOE announced yesterday, students who are doing blended learning will no longer be guaranteed any live instruction while at home.  And some of them will be on computers the whole time while in school, getting remote instruction with huge class sizes, that is, if they are provided any live classes at all.

I hope that some of these thousands of educators stick around to help reduce class sizes when NYC schools get back to normal.  Our kids deserve a better education and will need those small classes more than ever.

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9/16/20 Today was the  first day of remote orientation for NYC students.  Next week, part-time, in-person instruction will begin for those students that have opted into blended learning.  

Meanwhile, last week, 55 NYC teachers tested positive for COVID, raising some alarm, though as the Mayor pointed out, the figure is only .23% of the 17,000 or so teachers who were tested.  Still, staff at many schools are resisting entering their buildings, because of inadequate cleaning, PPE supplies, and/or ventilation.

One of the biggest problems is that principals say they still don’t have enough teachers to make the blend of in-person and remote classes work – as the system devised by DOE requires  three times as many full-time staffers as previously: one to teach full-time remote students; one to teach the part-time blended learning students when they’re at home, and one for the part-time in-person students.  A

Although the DOE now claims that they’ve hired and/or reassigned 2,000 more teachers and administrators to schools, the CSA, the principals union, said that schools require at least 10,000 additional teachers to make the scheduling work. What’s especially perverse is because of constrained budgets and funding cuts,  many schools have been forced to excess some of the teachers and other counselors and librarians they so desperately need who were already on staff.

In order to compensate for the staffing shortages, the UFT agreed that class sizes for the blended, remote learning could double  to as much as 64-68 students per class, which totally undermines any chance that these classes could be successful.

Then, last night, the night before remote orientation was to begin, the DOE announced that when they're at home, blended learning students would not be guaranteed of the one to two hours of live teaching per day that they had been previously promised.

Throughout the spring and summer, I had remained hopeful that the DOE would do everything they could to maximize the opportunity for students to interact with their teachers, either in-person or online, given how essential live human interaction is to academic and emotional development for most kids.  

The overall health conditions seemed to indicate this was possible.  In NYC, the positivity rates have been low around 1% for a month or more, and unlike elsewhere in the state, both social distancing and mask wearing  will be required in our schools; and here, all schools will be shut down if these rates reach 3% whereas the state benchmark for automatic closure is a less protective 5%.

Other countries with fewer restrictions have reopened schools without seeing a rise in transmission. And according to the DOE, the REC centers that opened in March for the children of essential workers had no major breakouts, despite the fact they opened at height of the pandemic in NYC, though unfortunately the city has so far failed to publicly release this data.

Yet it's shameful how the planning for reopening has been so late and so incoherent .  The Mayor and the DOE had nearly six months to come up with a better plan and utterly failed. 

Remember when de Blasio said this year would "have to be the best academic year we’ve ever had to help our kids move forward?"  Instead, it is likely that they will be subjected to more confusion, immense online class sizes and little actual teacher contact or feedback. They deserved better.

Today's "Talk out of School" on PreK reopening and how to improve online learning

This morning, on my “Talk out of School” podcast, I spoke to Alice Mulligan, director of a preschool in Brooklyn and head of CBOs for Equity, whose school reopened last week.  She described the changes and renovations she had to make to ensure proper safety precautions, without help or reimbursement from the DOE. 

Alice almost had to cancel the interview when right before the broadcast, one of her students developed a runny nose.  As she explained, she hurriedly put on PPE and waited outside for the parents to come to pick up and take the child home.  Luckily, Alice was able to return to her office right before 10 AM to speak on the show. Just one of the many unpredictable events that educators will have to deal with during this unpredictable year.

Then I interviewed Tom Liam Lynch, director of education policy for the Center for NYC affairs and editor in chief  of InsideSchools, who explained their new project, InsideSchools plus, an online community site for parents to share information about their schools and express their concerns.   

Tom also helped develop the iLearn learning platform when he worked for DOE several years ago.  iLearn was used during this past summer school with  inconsistent results. Tom explained how he believes remote learning could be strengthened from the version that was implemented over the summer and last year, that is, if teachers are properly supported. He has also developed a free online course for parents to let them know how to help their children succeed with learning remotely. 

As I made clear during our discussion, I’m not a fan of online learning, and strongly believe that at its best, learning is a collective, social endeavor and that most students need the steady in-person support of their teachers to thrive. And yet given the fact that most students will be relegated to remote instruction for much of their time, even if they opted into in-person learning, it is important to try to improve upon the method by analyzing the failures of the past .

Monday, September 14, 2020

Bobson Wong, HS teacher, on why before reopening schools, NYC needs time and resources to get it right.


Bobson Wong is a math teacher at a NYC public high school and author of "The Math Teacher's Toolbox."   Here is what he wrote after I asked him how he would design a school reopening plan for NYC.  If others would like to offer their school reopening ideas to this blog, please send them to info@classsizematters.org. - LH

"I would focus on improving remote learning for everyone. School buildings should be thought of as places where students can come to do their work if they're unable or unwilling to work from home. They'd receive a place to work, technology and Internet access if necessary, and help in using it. If necessary, they could receive in-person help with content from teachers (think of it as tutoring). 

Teachers could rotate providing support. Most students and staff could then stay home, where we could focus on improving the remote learning experience for everyone. Thinking of school buildings as support centers would also enable schools to occasionally bring small groups of students into the building for specific reasons (e.g. invite seniors in so guidance counselors could help them with college applications, or inviting students in crisis to receive emotional support). 

Thinking of school buildings as support centers is also compatible with other ideas, such as organizing outdoor learning experiences. They are not mutually exclusive. Focusing on providing support for remote learning is the simplest plan right now, given the limited resources that schools have available. Most of the hybrid schedules I've seen have left everyone - students, parents, and school staff - confused and exhausted. 

Some people argue that children, especially younger ones, don't transmit the virus and can return to schools safely. That may be true. We could have spent the last six months coming up with a workable plan in which younger students could have been invited back to school buildings. 

We could have pressured legislators to increase resources to schools so that we could provide adequate academic and social-emotional and support for everyone. Unfortunately, we've squandered the last six months doing nothing. 

The city has mismanaged the reopening of school buildings. Every teacher I know, myself included, quickly recognized the many gaps and flaws in the city's plans. We know how to organize complicated tasks, but to my knowledge K-12 educators were not part of the planning process, so our expertise has been wasted. 

Instead, as is often the case, teachers are left filling in the gaps. In this environment, pushing to reopen school buildings right now is simply irresponsible. The city needs time and resources to get it right. Until then, we should focus on improving remote learning, not on tweaking a flawed plan."

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Reopening schools amid funding cuts & how to minimize the harm of remote learning

On this week's "Talk out of School" I interviewed Jasmine Gripper, Executive Director of the Alliance for Quality Education, about Governor Cuomo’s damaging and inequitable budget cuts to public schools. 

Then Josh Golin, Executive Director of Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, explained why schools need to minimize screen time and the use of ed tech apps and should protect student privacy during remote learning. He also explained how parents can advocate for this.  Resources below.

You can also subscribe to our weekly podcast and listen to past shows here.

More resources here:

Alliance for Quality Education report: Set Up to Fail: How Cuomo’s School Cuts Target New York’s Black & Brown Students 
For more information on AQE’s planned 9/12/20 actions on school funding, contact  Maria@aqeny.org  

News on Albany school cuts  and Schenectady layoffs 

Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood’s statement urging schools to minimize screen time and ed tech 

Also: CCFC petition on this issue and an article on the subject.

Parent Toolkit for Student Privacy from CCFC and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy 


 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Talk out of School podcast with Jamaal Bowman and Randi Levine

Check out our latest "Talk out of School" podcast with former principal Jamaal Bowman about his landslide primary win in NY's District16 and what he intends to do for our public schools when he gets to Congress.

Then we spoke to Randi Levine, Policy Director of Advocates for Children, about what she thinks of the city's just-released school reopening plan  and whether it does enough for the more than 200,000 students with special needs and the 114,000 students who are homeless.  More information below.

 

More resources:



Thoughts on school reopening from Gladys Sotomayor, a teacher who has worked in the system for 21 years

From an email that Gladys sent to the NYC Ed list; reprinted with her permission.

I am a NYC teacher serving the school system in the Absent teacher reserve and a teacher for 21 years. But enough about me.

I have waited a long while to chime into the debate especially when there are teachers who are in a wide range of teaching conditions out there publicly or privately raising concerns. You know race, age, working from pre k to 12 rich poor, nabes, varying degrees of COVID-19 infection rates/ hospitalizations and more. Not to mention we are entering the labor day weekend where many of us are on vacation and families may engage in risk behaviors. I can pray that there will not be a spike in infections but I doubt it.

Yesterday I ran into a parent who lives in a primarily immigrant community telling him that students will return to school on September 21. His smile dropped and I could sense his heart sank I explained that it was a good thing because we can plan, be trained and see the "lay of the land" to ensure your children and  school community are safe.I said to myself, well the union was for once negotiated a stay of reopening using a "threat of a strike" . Well at least for now.  He said, ok I am calling my wife. He has elementary age school children.

I am happy if some schools were able to get what parents and the school communitypetitioned from the get go (meaning fall start) through the SLT process and their advocacy. This is not the case for all school communities. 

In person teaching as we knew it will not return.And yet, the nation as well as the world are watching what we all do to reopen and some hoping we fall on our face.The underfunded segregated largest school system in the nation is now fully exposed. Much of the debate and commentary is about what ifs and why nots and where is the money in the budget etc etc etc. We know the answers to these questions, little to nothing. The HERO act is  floundering in Congress. State and city tax revenue are at an all time low, well we are told that we are in trouble. 

Many of my colleagues are retiring or quitting and we face a huge staffing problem and this is citywide. For the first time,I am receiving so many offers to interview for positions. Thank God I am assigned to the school I served last semester. I am staying.

It was "nice" that the UFT took a position to strike. I said to myself wow really? I sort of thought well it would be a powerful negotiating tool and it worked. As for me I was not in favor of a strike this time around only because I serve in a working class and working poor communities in a time of a nationwide and world pandemic. This is my second "rodeo" when it comes to living in our city who became the epicenter of a worldwide pandemic. The suffering is immense.

I am glad that the unions were able to reach to an agreement for now!  I plan to return to in building work as scheduled and work the problems that are presented in uncharted terrain and waters. And will voice concerns when solutions are not presented or collectively reached. 

Sincerely,

Gladys M Sotomayor, MPA and NYC Teacher 



Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Update: a deal to delay the reopening of NYC schools and a new plan to provide regular Covid testing to students and staff

Today, the Mayor, the Chancellor and the unions – the UFT, CSA and DC37—announced a deal that would move back the first day of school to Wednesday, September 16. All students will begin remote instruction on that day. In-person learning in schools will begin the week of Monday Sept. 21 for blended learning students who have opted in. Teachers will report to buildings on September 8 as originally scheduled and will have six days to receive training, coordinate, collaborate and prepare. (Here's the link to the video if you want to watch the press conference - it starts about 25 minutes in.)

Among the health and safety measures announced today is that between 10-20% of all students and staff will be tested every month at every school by mobile testing units– a huge undertaking. Along with the promise of centrally-provided PPE, mandatory mask wearing, social distancing and improved classroom ventilation, the testing protocol led UFT President Michael Mulgrew to describe the plan “as the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in the USA.” The state and city positivity rate last week has been hovering around one percent for weeks, among the lowest in the nation. Last week, it was an extremely low 0.6% -0.7%

Before today’s announcement, uncertainty and chaos reigned supreme. The UFT was threatening a strike, and the CSA, the school administrator/principal union, was strongly pushing for a delay to ensure more time to prepare. Many principals spoke out publicly about the need for this delay, along with several CECs, teacher and parent groups. 

Last week the DOE released two new guidance documents, one entitled Blended Learning and Fully Remote Teaching and Learning and another called Preparing for the 2020-2021 School Year: FAQs for Blended and Remote Learning. These documents made it clear that schools would have to staff three different positions for each grade and/or subject; a “ Blended Learning On-Site Teacher to work with students who opted for in-person instruction, a “Blended Learning Remote Teacherto work with these students on the days that they are home, and yet another “Fully Remote Teacher in charge of teaching students who opted for 100% online instruction. At the same time, the DOE suggested that would be a new staff position called a “Virtual Content Specialistto develop online instructional materials and keep all three teachers on track. 

Principals responded with understandable frustration about the difficulty in staffing all three positions, especially given the hiring freeze. CSA president, Mark Cannizaro, warned of a “massive staff shortage”. Small schools simply don’t have enough classroom teachers to teach three sets of students concurrently, no less create a new position of content specialists, and have no funds to hire more. DOE has said they may hire more teachers or reassign administrators to teach classes in schools that need extra staffing, but so far has not done so. 

For larger schools, it’s possible they may have enough classroom teachers per grade and/or subject to teach three classes at a time, but how when in-person classes are limited to 10-12 students each? Indeed the FAQ from DOE now reveals that for Blended Learning Remote Teachers, the contractual class size limits will be allowed to double. In Kindergarten, that could mean 40 kids at a time. For grades 1-12, that could mean up to 64-68 students per online class. Here’s the relevant passage from the FAQ document (click to enlarge0:   

 

Instead, there really needs to be small classes to help students forge a stronger connection with their teachers, and to make up for learning loss & emotional trauma they suffered over the past year. Allowing class sizes to double in size ignores how difficult it is to keep students engaged when they are online. Some educators believe they need even smaller classes to be able to reach their students effectively and provide enough feedback when they’re relating to them through a computer screen rather then in a physical classroom. 

Be aware that for even blended learning students, remote instruction will be the main way they are provided with instruction and support in the coming months – as many will be able to attend school only one to two days a week, and even then, will not necessarily be interacting with their classroom teachers, but someone else on staff to “check in.” In fact, at the Mayor’s press conference last week, Linda Chen, Chief Academic Officer of DOE said that students will be encouraged to bring their devices to school to “maximize in-person learning.” What? 

Making the staffing situation even more difficult, many teachers are reportedly deciding to retire this year, or request child care leaves, and/ or are asking for health waivers so as not to have to teach in-person this year. Adding fuel to the fire, the Chancellor has appointed three highly paid educrats at Tweed– calling them “pandemic exceptions” to the hiring freeze. (I’m quoted in this same article about how unacceptable it is to further expand the bureaucracy, given the potential class size increases – calling it a “recipe for disaster.”) 

At the same time, the mayor has warned he may have to lay off 22,000 city workers, in response to looming budget cuts and sharp city revenue declines, unless the Legislature allows him to borrow more. All this has been made far worse by the Senate’s refusal to provide funding to schools to help them afford the extra staffing and safety precautions necessary. 

Governor Cuomo has been particularly egregious, first making inequitable cuts to NYC schools via his “pandemic adjustment,” and now withholding an additional 20% chunk of state aid. He remains stubbornly opposed to any revenue measures that would restore school aid by raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy or multi-million dollar pied-a-terre apartments. The pandemic is hard enough.  It would be far better if the federal government and the state were focused on helping our public schools respond to the myriad threats they face, rather than working against them.