Emergency preparedness: NYC schools to conduct optional remote exercise on June 6

Two young students sit side by side and reach out to work on laptops. The student in the background is not in focus.
NYC schools are asking students to log into their schools' systems on June 6, a day off, to test the emergency remote learning system. (Getty Images)

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This is a test of the city’s remote learning system. Again.

New York City schools are conducting a practice exercise on June 6 — a day off for students — to ensure the nation’s largest school system can handle a pivot to remote learning in the event of weather-related or other widespread campus closures.

The Education Department conducted a similar exercise in December, asking families to sign into their online school accounts to test out the city’s virtual learning systems in case of an actual emergency. But the drill was in vain: When schools went remote for snow in February, a major glitch prevented many teachers and students across the city from logging on.

During next month’s simulation, which is voluntary, students and teachers will log into their schools’ systems during a pre-scheduled time slot to engage in a non-instructional activity. Students do not attend school on June 6, “Anniversary Day/Chancellor’s Day,” and teachers have a remote professional development day, according to the teachers union contract.

Since students and educators will be home, the city is hoping to create a similar setting to a real remote day.

During the previous remote practice, schools conducted their exercises on different days and times.

The Education Department is leaning more heavily on remote learning during severe weather and other emergencies, in part due to a growing number of school holidays on the calendar and a state mandate to provide 180 days of school. Switching to remote learning in those circumstances helps the city avoid tacking on school days at the end of the year or risk violating state rules.

Education Department officials said on Thursday that they alerted families about the practice day, but many families had yet to receive notification as of late Thursday.

During the February snowstorm, the system that manages student and teacher logins couldn’t handle thousands of users all signing in at once. That system is managed by IBM, and the Education Department swiftly cast blame on the technology giant. Schools Chancellor David Banks said the company was “not ready for prime time.”

At a City Council hearing in March, officials conceded that IBM was only contracted to guarantee 400 “transactions per second.” A single login potentially required multiple transactions. In a system with close to 1 million students and staff, the system quickly buckled. Families were hit with error messages and IBM officials scrambled to add capacity on the fly.

City officials said they’ve been working with IBM to ensure the system can handle a pivot to virtual learning. But they stopped short of promising that everyone would be able to log on at the same time.

The Education Department reiterated they still may have to resort to staggered school start times to avoid too many simultaneous logins, a prospect that has drawn concern from some City Council members.

Though the June practice exercise is optional, the Education Department is urging students to participate since the more people who log on, the more useful the exercise will be to prepare for an actual mandated remote day.

“In a world where extreme weather conditions are more commonplace, it is essential that our school system is prepared to pivot to virtual learning and that our students don’t lose critical instructional hours,” Banks said in a statement.

Over the past few months, IBM has been working on improving its ability to handle a surge of students and staffers logging into school systems, Vanessa Hunt, an IBM executive, said in a statement. IBM had not been directly involved in the city’s previous remote learning drills.

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

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