Which NYC schools offer live instruction? Some leaders want the education department to keep track.

An East Harlem Academies student participates in remote learning. The charter network on Thursday announced classes would remain online for the rest of the school year.
A charter school student participates in virtual learning at home. (East Harlem Academies)

New York City schools officials don’t know how many of its 1 million public school students are receiving live instruction — and some local leaders said Wednesday that they want answers. 

During a City Council oversight hearing focused on remote learning, Chief Academic Officer Linda Chen said officials “don’t have exact data in terms of how many students are receiving it for how long.” 

Ursulina Ramirez, the department’s chief operating officer, said the initial focus after city school buildings closed in March was “getting our system up and running,” and making sure teachers were trained properly to teach students virtually. For many schools, that meant getting familiar with the online platform Google Classroom and helping colleagues who didn’t know how to use it, teachers have said.  

“I think it’s been an ongoing effort to make sure we have live instruction for our students,” Ramirez said. 

At the hearing, Councilman Mark Treyger, who also chairs the council’s education committee, asked the education department to determine how many students are receiving live instruction from each school district. He said this information could show how some schools — those with enough devices on hand, say, and those whose teachers were already familiar with Google Classroom — were better prepared for remote learning from the start. 

“Some communities had a head start on remote learning — what that means is they might be more able to receive live instruction than those communities that still need to adjust to just getting the tablet and knowing how to use it and making sure teachers are getting the adequate support,” Treyger said. “And so I really think this is an issue that just speaks to the built-in inequities in the school system.” 

Such data is likely complicated to collect. The city’s 1,800 schools have developed their own class schedules and strategies for how to teach students from home. Some teachers may be holding live classes with students at set times, while others may largely rely on setting assignment due dates and offering one-on-ones or office hours for students. 

“There is no one-size fits all approach, and teachers are structuring their day to best meet the needs of their students and families,” Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the education department, said, when asked why live instruction data hadn’t been collected and whether the department will collect it in the future. “Teachers have been using tools and techniques to engage students, mixing live and self-paced instruction to accommodate other responsibilities faced by students and employees during these times.”

Filson also said the department sees value in live instruction, and is “supporting teachers in implementing it when possible.”

Schools are also marking students present in different ways, with some looking at completed assignments, others at participation, and others still at whether students have been in touch with their teachers. As of last week, an average 87% of students were counted present since April 6, which represents data from an average of 94% of all students, according to the education department.

It’s possible there are students who have never logged on, Ramirez said, but she added that schools are required to do “wellness checks” on students who they haven’t heard from.

Chen said many teachers are trying to reproduce what happens in the classroom, such as holding virtual morning meetings. But participating in live instruction can also be tough for students, such as those who are sharing a laptop with siblings and those who may be working to support family during the pandemic. 

The city teachers union has encouraged teachers not to “replicate” a normal school day with virtual teaching, given how the pandemic could be shifting schedules or presenting challenges for families and staff.

Some students and families are craving more interaction. 

Joshua Applewhite, a student at Liberation Diploma Plus High School in Coney Island, said he was never big on school but liked Liberation because he met helpful teachers and people he could relate to. Remote learning has changed that, he said. 

“Now being back in comfort of my own home, doing the work — the same work I was doing, just without the interactiveness — I feel like a robot,” said Applewhite, who was invited to speak before the hearing started. “As a matter of fact, I feel like this whole situation is handled like we’re robots and we’re not humans with different feelings and different circumstances and different situations.”

Lori Podvesker, a policy manager at INCLUDEnyc and a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, said her son’s District 75 school has had “barely” any live instruction, which she believes will hurt his social development and ability to be independent in the future. 

District 75 serves more than 24,000 New York City students with significant disabilities. 

“There are a lot of other aspects to that other than the social interactions — it’s the skills,” Podvesker said during the hearing.

Chancellor Richard Carranza has said providing more live teaching is a focus for summer school, which is expected to serve about 178,000 students this year. The education department will train teachers specifically on live instruction ahead of the summer, Chen said. She added that 27,000 students with disabilities who require year-round schooling will need “more and differentiated types of live instruction” this summer.

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