As NYC bans Zoom for online learning, some schools pause live instruction

Eighth grader Jadeyn Madhere felt like she was hitting a groove with remote learning. 

She enjoyed her teachers’ 15-minute live mini-lessons with opportunities to ask questions. Her all-girls discussion group, where about a dozen students could talk openly about their lives, also went virtual — Jadeyn’s favorite part of the week.

But those activities came to a screeching halt on Monday after the city’s education department ordered schools to stop using Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform that many schools across the five boroughs began using amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Zoom made it feel like we’re still in school and were having classes,” said Jadeyn, a student at Manhattan’s School for Global Leaders. Her teachers have shifted to pre-recorded lessons. But not seeing her classmates and teachers on a video conference felt more isolating, she said.

“It feels like we’re distanced more,” Jadeyn said. “I was a little disoriented.” 

Principals were told Friday to abandon Zoom “as soon as possible” due to security and privacy concerns, even though many schools had been using it for weeks. Some educators stopped immediately on Monday, while others planned to phase it out more gradually. Many teachers and students are now scrambling to adapt, just as they were getting into a rhythm with their virtual classrooms.

Shifting (and re-shifting) directives 

The department’s initial directive, which also included banning Google tools for video and audio conferencing, sounded urgent. Less than 48 hours later, the tone shifted: Schools could keep using Zoom while they migrated to other platforms, with the city encouraging the use of Microsoft Teams or Google’s conferencing platform, which had been approved over the weekend.

At some schools, the rapidly-shifting messages haven’t made much difference, since they were already using Google or Microsoft platforms. But for many schools, the directive that Zoom could continue for now came too late and principals had already ordered their teachers to ditch Zoom immediately without detailed instructions from the department about how to use alternative platforms.

Jessica Ross, a biology teacher at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, had met with her students on Zoom for several hours each week, using the time to explain changes to the AP Biology exam caused by the coronavirus and even holding small group activities on the structure and function of neurons.

“Now the direction is don’t use Zoom, but do you have anything better?” Ross said. “My kids have an AP exam in five weeks. How am I supposed to prepare them if I can’t do direct instruction?”

Ross is the first to acknowledge that Zoom had some issues: She contended with students using the platform to disrupt her classes, but she had figured out how to limit access and even kick students out if needed.

In her dry runs to test Microsoft Teams without live students, Ross struggled to figure out how to block people from entering or break participants into smaller groups. She said she’s also unsure of how her students are supposed to log in.

The education department sent a memo to principals on Sunday evening that said instructions for educators and families on using platforms other than Zoom would be available “in the coming days.”

“We know this transition won’t happen overnight, and we are supporting our educators with trainings and professional development to get them onto secure tools like Google and Microsoft Teams,” education department spokesperson Danielle Filson wrote in an email. She added students can log into Microsoft Teams using email accounts the city created for them.

‘Anxious and frustrated’ educators

It was not immediately clear why detailed how-to directions on using platforms other than Zoom were not available before schools were asked to make the transition, though officials said they would be shared soon and some initial guidance was provided. Zoom’s ease of use made it extremely popular, while educators said Microsoft Teams appears to be more complicated to use.

It was also unclear why officials had not encouraged schools to use other platforms weeks ago, especially since security and privacy concerns with Zoom were not new

The education department’s legal and technology divisions made the decision to ban Zoom based on guidance from the city’s unit on cyber security, officials said. The FBI and several elected officials called for investigations into the platform.

The department has said it may ultimately approve Zoom in the future.

“My hope is that Zoom will patch this stuff up quickly and we’ll go back to it,” said Mark Cannizzaro, head of the union that represents school administrators. “People were already anxious and frustrated.”

Still, some schools continued using Zoom for the time being, including M.S. 50 in Williamsburg. 

The virtual cafeteria was up and running for students to eat breakfast and lunch together. Staff logged into their regular check-in on the platform. Nate Stripp, an eighth grade social studies teacher there, maintained his virtual office hours, as he has the past couple of weeks. 

His school is working on shifting to the city’s approved platforms, he said. But in the meantime, educators at M.S. 50 are taking advantage of the education department’s concession that the transition can happen gradually — and making sure that no student gets left behind in the process.

“We want to continue our meaningful interactions with students and maintaining that continuity is essential,” Stripp said. “We’ve established these routines in the first couple of weeks of remote learning, and maintaining that connection that we’ve established in those routines is really critical.” 

Gaps in online education strategy

Tom Liam Lynch, who runs the website InsideSchools and previously consulted with the city on education technology issues under the Bloomberg administration, applauded the move away from Zoom, given the security concerns.

Still, the disruption to schools demonstrates that the education department has lacked a coherent online education strategy for years, he said, and argues the department should appoint a deputy chancellor of digital learning.

“When you’re the largest school district in the country, all of this needs to be thought through before uttering a word about anything,” Lynch said. “If the city had a clearer digital learning plan, a lot of this heartache would have been avoided.”