What’s going on with remote learning in NYC? (Hint: It’s confusing.)

Mayor Eric Adams welcomes students back to school after the winter recess at Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx. City officials have recently given mixed messages about pursuing a remote learning option. (Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

New York City families and educators may be feeling confused by mixed messages over whether the nation’s largest school system is poised to offer a remote option. 

Mayor Eric Adams on Tuesday tamped down any expectations for a robust remote learning option for students. His comments came days after schools Chancellor David Banks told parent leaders that the city was in talks for just such a shift, and after the city quietly changed its attendance policy to give more students access to virtual schoolwork.

The discussion about a remote option comes after COVID cases across New York City spiked to record highs due to the omicron variant. Since the winter break, attendance hasn’t cracked 80%, compared to around 90% typically. That means about a quarter-million students haven’t been in schools on any given day — almost the size of the entire Broward County, Fla. school district, the nation’s sixth-largest. 

Here’s where things stand when it comes to a remote learning option for New York City students. 

Is there a remote learning option for NYC students?

There currently is no remote learning option for New York City students — but city officials and unions have been in talks over the possibility of one. 

“If I could figure out a way to do a remote option starting tomorrow I would,” Banks told parent leaders last week. 

The new chancellor has been consistent in supporting a remote learning option, telling Chalkbeat before officially taking the helm of city schools that it’s “critically important” to acknowledge “that some parents are still fearful, legitimately, about the pandemic.”

While leaving the door open to the possibility, the chancellor and the mayor have both stressed that their main goal is to have students inside school buildings. 

“We consistently have stated that the safest place for a child is in school,” Adams said Tuesday. 

What might a remote option look like?

Any remote option offered to New York City families will likely be limited given city officials’ preference for in-person school, the massive disruptions a robust remote option might cause schools and families, potential challenges from unions, and the preference of many parents to keep their children in classrooms. 

Among the big, unanswered questions: Who would be eligible for remote instruction?

The president of the teachers union, Michael Mulgrew, said last week that any shift to virtual learning should be limited. On Tuesday, the mayor suggested it would only be for students who are sick, saying that remote learning “is not for the general population, and we want to be clear on that.”

“Our exploration of anything remote is to target the children who are infected, and we want to isolate them,” Adams said. “Those are our target groups. It is not just to send a signal out if you don’t want to come to school, don’t come to school. No, our schools are open.”

What role might unions play?

Unions will likely play a central role in what, if anything, is rolled out. 

To help solve the enormous staffing and logistical issues created by remote instruction, the chancellor had hinted that the city was pushing for teachers to livestream lessons. But the teachers union has been adamantly opposed to live streaming, and the city’s current agreement with the United Federation of Teachers prohibits any requirement to do so.

The Council for School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, sent members an update last week that said leaders were “very surprised” to hear the chancellor’s support for a remote learning option. 

The note to members laid out some of the union’s positions on remote learning, including that students who switch to remote learning should be locked in for the remainder of the school year, that principals be given autonomy and time to make adjustments, and that teachers be required to continue to work inside school buildings. 

“​​We’ve already communicated to the chancellor how disrespected and frustrated school leaders felt when learning about the prior administration’s plans for schools in the press,” the union’s message said. “We anticipate that he and his team will acknowledge and solve for the complex challenges that come along with this sudden and unexpected reversal midway through a school year.”

In the meantime, will students who stay home have access to remote work?

Since the beginning of the school year, teachers have been required to set up virtual classrooms to provide remote work, but some schools only allowed students to access that work if they had a positive COVID test or were quarantining because of positive cases. Students who stayed home because they weren’t feeling well because of some other illness, or for any other reason, could be left without any instruction. 

Last week, the education department sent new guidance to principals that clarified that teachers can provide work to students, regardless of why they’re staying home, as long as the teacher and their supervisor agrees. Additionally, students can be marked as present while attending class remotely, even if they didn’t test positive themselves — a move that might help the city’s dismal attendance rates. 

Educators and some parents had pushed for the changes, saying they had set up remote classrooms anyways and that it didn’t make sense to leave so many students without access to schoolwork. 

“When kids are absent for whatever reason, we need a way to keep them connected and keep them engaged,” said Michael Perlberg, a middle school principal in Brooklyn. 

The policy shift gives schools a stopgap measure while cases remain high, but it falls short of the kind of remote instruction made available earlier in the pandemic. Plus, it will only be available on a school-by-school basis — when teachers and principals agree to it — which could mean that many students remain disconnected from school. 

Such concerns prompted some from one local district to call for more uniform guidance. Parent leaders and school principals in Brooklyn’s District 13, spanning Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, drafted a petition calling on the city to guarantee access to virtual learning for students who are at home sick, whether they tested positive for COVID or not. 

“It’s an equity issue because right now some schools can do it and some schools can’t,” said Cynthia McKnight, the president of the district’s Community Education Council, a parent-lead volunteer body.  “There’s nothing centralized to offer these families remote learning.”

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