As NYC conducts virtual learning drill, some students find empty classrooms

Two young students sit side by side and reach out to work on laptops. The student in the background is not in focus.
New York City officials asked students across the five boroughs to log in for an optional remote learning practice drill on Thursday. (Getty Images)

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Queens high school senior Tanvir Kaur was busy preparing for prom on Thursday, a day off for students across New York City public schools. But she still carved out time to log on for a virtual session with her AP economics teacher just before 9 a.m.

It was a scheduled drill to test whether the Education Department could handle a crush of simultaneous logins after the city’s virtual learning platform crashed during a pivot to remote instruction during a snowstorm in February.

Tanvir had no trouble getting into the video call Thursday morning. But of the roughly 30 students in the class, she was the only one to sign on.

“I just talked about my day, we talked about [the teacher’s] day. She showed me her cat,” said Tanvir, who attends the Academy of American Studies. “I feel like it was kind of dumb because I was the only student there. So how are they going to test how many people can be on the Zoom?”

The Education Department is increasingly reliant on remote instruction during extreme weather and other emergencies, as officials have little wiggle room to cancel class given state rules on the minimum number of instructional days and a growing number of school holidays.

During a snowstorm in February, as officials quickly switched to remote instruction, the city’s remote learning platforms buckled as hundreds of thousands of students and teachers started signing on. Education officials initially blamed IBM, the company that manages the login process, but they eventually acknowledged the city’s contract did not guarantee enough capacity for everyone to log in at once.

Thursday’s remote drill represented the first public effort to stress test the system in the wake of that episode. Students were invited to log in at different times based on their grade level, a staggered process that officials have said is necessary for the time being to avoid overloading the system. Educators were instructed to offer “non-instructional” activities, such as hosting a schoolwide meeting, showing a video, or holding office hours.

Education Department officials stressed that the roughly 25-minute drill — during a remote professional development day for teachers — was optional for families. But they previously noted in a press release that “the more students that participate by logging into NYCPS systems, the more accurate and useful this emergency readiness exercise will be.”

Officials did not indicate how many students and staff logged on Thursday, but some educators said attendance for the voluntary drill was sparse.

Abby Loomis, a fourth grade teacher at P.S. 414 in Brooklyn, said about six of her 18 students showed up, though some of her colleagues said they had one or zero students attend. She arranged a few short online quizzes about concepts they’d been studying including decimals and microplastics.

“They seemed to enjoy that,” Loomis said. “I think they wanted to socialize with their friends.”

One Manhattan elementary school principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said fewer than 25% of the school’s students logged on. The drill took away some of the limited time the staff has to reflect and plan for next school year, the principal said, adding that they were bombarded with reminders, checklists, and other compliance tasks in the run-up to the drill.

“It just seems like an unnecessarily heavy emphasis on something that feels unlikely to yield high participation rates,” the school leader said. “And it’s probably not going to prevent a problem the next time there’s an actual remote day.”

Multiple educators noted that it is difficult to conduct a full-scale test of the remote learning system. If the city required the test during a regular school day, some campuses would not have enough devices for everyone to log in at once.

But successfully drawing most students on a day off poses significant roadblocks, too, and several families said they didn’t participate because they couldn’t juggle it on top of work responsibilities.

“Given that the DOE is asking parents to find weekday childcare four times this month, it’s a tall order to then ask us to make one of those days a remote practice day too,” Brooklyn mom Leslie Hayes wrote in an email. “The last thing I have time to do is take time out of our day to log into the system and help the DOE practice something that they should have addressed months ago.”

Communication issues also seemed to prevent some students and parents from logging in for the drill. Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, an East Harlem parent who serves on the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, said she supports the test in theory but didn’t receive official instructions until a few days before the drill.

“I wish it was more organized,” she wrote in a text message. “I personally would have supported an effort if I knew … how to volunteer to participate.”

Beacon High School junior Bernie Carmona opted to sign in for the drill, in part because he didn’t realize it was optional and he tends to wake up early anyway. But when he logged into the city’s remote learning portal, he couldn’t find any videoconferencing links or other tasks to complete.

“I was a little confused,” he said. “We didn’t get any direction on what was going to happen.”

He suspects many of his classmates didn’t take the city up on its offer to log in on a day off. “A lot of kids were just like, ‘That’s ridiculous – nobody is going to join at 8:45 a.m.’”

Beacon’s principal did not immediately return a request for comment.

Department officials did not indicate whether they considered Thursday’s remote learning drill a success. A spokesperson noted that the city is conducting “ongoing load testing” with IBM.

“We are grateful to our families and staff who joined this morning’s emergency preparedness pivot to remote exercise,” Education Department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer wrote in a statement. “We look forward to incorporating the findings from this simulation following a thorough review.”

The remote learning drill also raised eyebrows among some experts. “If the issue was the number of logins, why pick a day when essentially no one’s going to log in?” said Gerald Ardito, a dean and professor at Manhattanville University who has studied remote learning systems.

Beyond the technical questions, Ardito said an even bigger issue is whether the Education Department has a clear strategy for teaching and learning after a quick pivot to remote instruction and how that might differ from a regular school day.

“It’s like so many things where we treat educational technologies as if they’re just technical issues, but they’re just clearly not,” Ardito said. “If they could crack this, it would be an enormous contribution to like essentially every school district.”

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

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