By Alex Zimmerman and Reema Amin, Chalkbeat New York
For weeks, educators and families have been waiting for New York City’s plan for handling positive coronavirus cases in schools and how to teach students if they’re forced to quarantine.
But even as officials offered new details Thursday about when students would be forced to learn remotely, there was scant information about what that instruction would look like.
“We’re going to be filling in a few more blanks in the next few days because there’s still a couple of issues being worked out,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters, noting the city is negotiating with union leaders.
With fewer than three weeks until students return to classrooms, some educators are frustrated without clear answers about how they should approach teaching classrooms that may be splintered with some students quarantined at home while others continue learning in person.
“It feels like we’re coming down the wire, and this was a predictable problem for weeks and weeks and months and months,” said Mike Loeb, a middle school science teacher at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx. “There needs to be a plan in place.”
Whatever plan de Blasio ultimately releases will have an enormous impact on student learning this year. Even as the mayor has insisted on requiring students to return to school buildings this fall, after more than 60% learned fully remotely last year, city officials have settled on quarantine policies that will likely force many students to learn from home for several days at a time when cases are identified.
Elementary school classrooms will be forced to quarantine for 10 days with just one positive case, a policy that is more conservative than what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. City officials said elementary schools will be expected to provide live instruction to quarantined students and should be provided by their regular teacher, though it’s not clear how many hours of instruction students should expect.
One Manhattan elementary school principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she was “glad that the DOE is erring on the side of caution” given that the more contagious delta variant has been circulating, and none of her students are eligible for vaccination. She plans to require all of her teachers to use Google Classroom as soon as the school year starts to communicate with families and post assignments so it’s less disruptive if classrooms have to suddenly quarantine. If necessary, the school plans to recreate a full day of lessons on Zoom, with slightly less live instruction for the youngest children.
The picture is murkier for middle and high schools because vaccinated students who aren’t showing symptoms will be allowed to continue learning in person, while unvaccinated students who are exposed will be required to learn from home for seven to 10 days.
City officials did not say whether middle and high school students should expect to continue working with their regular teachers while they’re quarantined, nor did they explain what type of instruction they might receive, such as live lessons or assignments to be completed on their own time.
It’s also unclear whether teachers could be expected to livestream their classrooms and teach students in front of them and at home simultaneously, a solution some other school districts have pursued, but which New York City union leaders successfully resisted last school year. In Broward County, Florida, the nation’s sixth-largest school district, a virtual homework hotline has been expanded to provide support to quarantined students during the school day. Chicago will require teachers to livestream a portion of their lessons. But in other school districts, students have been sent home with paper worksheets and little other support.
The benefit of livestreaming is its simplicity and that it could save schools from complex staffing arrangements to oversee remote learning when students are at home. But several New York City teachers said such a setup would be difficult to pull off without disadvantaging the students who are learning from home or without better cameras and microphones in their classrooms, a problem teachers have experienced across the country.
Nathan Floro, who teaches English as a new language at Brooklyn’s New Utrecht High School, said such a setup would likely shortchange at least one group of students and make it difficult to attempt more interactive lessons for the students who are in person.
“You’re kinda baby-sitting a computer monitor instead of engaging kids who are in person and making sure they’re on task, so you end up getting the worst of both worlds,” Floro said.
Even though every educator taught remotely last year for at least part of the time, quickly launching quality remote lessons could be a challenge, especially as teachers will likely keep teaching students in person every day even if their classroom must quarantine (all teachers must be vaccinated).
Last year, most teachers continuously planned remote lessons because the majority of students were fully remote, and many others only came to school buildings on staggered schedules, learning from home the rest of the time. This year, the amount of remote teaching that will be expected is less predictable.
Loeb, the middle school math teacher, said it’s important for schools to plan for the possibility of remote learning in advance, even as city officials emphasize that in-person learning will be the norm. Communicating with students and families how to log on and manage digital assignments is essential so a sudden quarantine doesn’t leave them scrambling to navigate login information and the specifics of how various digital platforms work.
“We need to explicitly prepare our kids for that,” he said.
Julie Zuckerman, principal of Manhattan’s Castle Bridge School, said she might take the opposite approach: leaning on paper packets instead of trying to spin up digital classrooms without knowing in advance which students may have to quarantine and with little time to prepare before the school year starts. She would even consider having outdoor classes in a nearby playground, weather permitting and with everyone masked, for students who are supposed to be quarantining, so long as their parents were OK with it.
Quarantines can happen unexpectedly, and in that case, many logistics would have to be worked out at Castle Bridge. That includes redistributing devices they’ve collected from every child and tweaking what the children were learning in school into online lessons that they can post on Google Classroom.
“We cannot pivot to give the kids the Mercedes experience of teaching and learning while they’re quarantining for which we have had no time to prepare,” Zuckerman said. “So I think that’s the thing — that we have to change the expectation.”
Christina Veiga contributed
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.