NYC says classroom teachers shouldn’t also have to teach remotely. Principals fear a staffing crunch.

With two weeks before New York City school buildings are slated to reopen, education department officials are asking school leaders to assign one group of teachers for students learning in-person and two other groups for those working from home. The guidance could upend weeks of planning, and city leaders and the teachers union concede it will create a major staffing crunch.

School leaders have been scrambling to build two learning experiences at once, for families  opting for a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, and for the more than one-third of students who have chosen to learn exclusively online. Virtual learning will include 65 to 120 minutes of live instruction daily, depending on the grade level, the education department revealed Thursday, as it unveiled long-awaited back-to-school guidance.

Principals have been at work creating complicated schedules without knowing exactly how many staff they’ll have on hand, how many students will ultimately attend in person, or even how much face time with a teacher the city will require for students when they’re not physically in school. 

Now, school leaders say the city’s last-minute guidance will force them either to ditch their plans and start from scratch or bend the city’s rules to accommodate the plans they’ve already created.

“We’ve been demanding guidance such as this for months — months — with no response,” said Nancy Harris, principal of the Spruce Street School in Manhattan. She noted the new rules, outlined in almost 20 pages and two separate memos, were released just hours after the deadline for principals to inform parents of their child’s schedule for next year. Those schedules will likely have to be reworked in light of the new guidance. “It’s like a backwards system, and I’m constantly redoing things.”

Asked whether schools may need to head back to the drawing board given the new directives, a spokesperson for the education department said “it will depend.”

“This is guidance meant to provide clarity to principals. It is the result of hours of collaboration and discussion with our labor partners. Principals will work with their superintendents on their programming models,” spokesperson Danielle Filson wrote in an email.

The guidance says that schools should have three different groups of teachers: Those teaching students in person, another teaching those same students when they’re remote, and a third group responsible solely for students who have opted for full-time virtual learning.

“All efforts should be made to assign teachers to a program that is exclusively of one type (In-person or fully remote or blended remote),” the guidance states. But Filson said the department would be flexible in some cases, such as a school with one chemistry teacher who could teach students in-person during the morning and remotely in the afternoon.

Sticking strictly to the guidance would create a serious staffing dilemma, as schools would need many more teachers to cover in-person and remote classes simultaneously. It also will require an enormous degree of coordination between different teachers to make sure that students are on the same page regardless of whether they’re in the building.

Multiple principals said that rather than scrap their plans, crafted over weeks with help from teachers in their buildings, they simply plan to press ahead. 

At Manhattan’s New Design High School, the plan is to have all students learning digitally even when they’re in the school building. That will help maintain flexibility among teachers who have accommodations to work from home. It will also let the school seamlessly transition to fully remote instruction in the event that the school building is abruptly forced to shut down due to a rise in coronavirus infections.

“There’s just such a good possibility that we have to go remote at some point and we don’t want to lose student learning,” said Principal Scott Conti, who added that the guidance does not appear to take that into account. “Each school is trying to figure it out themselves.”

It was not clear whether the guidance can be enforced like the teachers contract; the education department and teachers union officials did not say.

Hundreds of principals have pleaded in open letters to delay the start of in-person learning, including those in Manhattan districts 1, 2, and 6; in Bronx districts 7 and 9; in Brooklyn districts 13, and 15; and in all of Staten Island. 

Staffing the recommended models will be a monumental hurdle. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgew called the guidelines “flexible,” but acknowledged the strain it will put on schools. 

“Even with this approach, many schools will still face a staffing shortage, which the system will have to address,” he said in a statement. 

Linda Chen, the education department’s chief academic officer, said the city is “concerned” about staffing issues but noted that anyone with a teaching license but who doesn’t typically work in a classroom could be pressed into service. Schools will be able to request additional staff, according to a letter sent to principals, though details were not immediately provided.

“Staffing has been and will continue to be something that we are monitoring closely,” Chen said during a press conference on Thursday. “The math would indicate to you that is going to be a variable we need to solve for.”

Principals said it could be difficult to quickly integrate teachers they didn’t hire into their schools. Arin Rusch, the principal of M.S 447 in Brooklyn, was nervous whether a battalion of unfamiliar educators could be effective in the classroom and online.

“Asking for more teachers a week before school is supposed to start, although it provides us with babysitters, it does not provide us with instructional coherence,” she said. “We are hiring educators for our school. We’re not hiring bodies.”

The education department might have other ways around that problem. Teachers who are providing remote instruction to the “hybrid” students are allowed to have double the number of students “per teaching period” than the union contract typically allows. That means, for instance, an elementary school educator might have more than 60 remote students on a given day, but would not be responsible for all those students at once, the education department said.

Students who opt for fully remote learning, on the other hand, won’t have more than the allowable class size under the union contract. For in-person teachers, the numbers are based on social distancing guidelines, which often means up to 12 students at a given time. Altogether, they can’t have more students than the teachers union contract allows.

Educators working with hybrid students will team-teach classes, with one person working in-person and the other supporting the students who are remote on a given day. Teams of teachers will have 30 minutes of time each day to coordinate. They will have to figure out how to share teaching responsibilities, including grading, office hours, and parent engagement. For many teachers, this will involve a new level of collaboration they’re not accustomed to.

They’ll have to get used to it fast: Per the teacher’s union contract, there are only two working days before schools reopen. In that time, teachers will have to tear down their own classrooms, many of which remain frozen in time since buildings were shuttered in March. They’ll have to set up new configurations to comply with social distancing. And they’ll need to be trained in a slew of new safety protocols.

To help coordinate online and in-person instruction, officials said they are launching a new role called a “virtual content specialist,” which educators would take on in addition to their regular responsibilities. This educator will help create online instructional videos and support teachers in other ways, and can be funded by the education department or directly from a school’s budget. It was not immediately clear how many of these positions the city will create. 

The education department also outlined how much time remote students will receive live instruction, based on their grade, with kindergarteners starting in September with 65-75 minutes a day, for instance. Third through fifth graders should get 90-110 daily minutes of live instruction, middle schoolers 80-100 minutes, and high school students 100-120 minutes, according to the guidance. The amount of live instruction students receive is expected to increase over the school year.

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