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How to fix remote learning in NYC

[This op-ed was originally published in the New York Daily News on Nov. 10, 2020.]

In recent weeks, New York City has done something remarkable.

Unlike virtually every other major American urban area, it managed to safely re-open its school buildings, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

More than a quarter of a million students — most on staggered schedules — and thousands of teachers have returned to schools under strict safety guidelines, including social distancing, obligatory masks, and mandatory virus testing.

Despite fears of schools increasing exposure to the virus, testing in schools has so far shown remarkably low infection rates, while in-school students are getting the benefit of the small classes made necessary by social distance guidelines.

So far, the logistical and safety challenges of re-opening schools have been met. But despite enormous efforts by teachers, remote learning — something more than 540,000 kids now rely on all the time, and the rest rely on all or part of the time — is still lagging.

A lack of instructional planning this spring and summer, along with poor or contradictory guidance to principals, have left too many students struggling to get or stay online, or in overcrowded virtual classrooms. Issues like these create a real barrier to student attendance, involvement and commitment, in addition to making teachers' jobs substantially more difficult.

To ensure remote instruction provides children what they need, the DOE needs to better support school communities in two critical ways: getting (and keeping) working technology into all students' hands, and providing the necessary staffing and professional training to make remote learning more effective.

While the city has hundreds of thousands of remote devices, including those on order, not all were designed to be Wi-Fi enabled, or are yet in the hands of families who need them.

There is a huge and pressing need to establish or improve Wi-Fi in homeless shelters. The city has promised quick action in about two dozen major shelters, but it also must move aggressively to serve students at many smaller shelters that are now apparently at the back of the line and could take months to be equipped.

Just as importantly, the city has to establish a reliable and accessible tech support function to replace its current operation, which is overwhelmed, frustrating parents, teachers and students themselves. In the wake of school buildings' closing last spring, it took months — and strong pressure from the union, including the threat of a teacher strike — for the DOE to eventually map out and implement the safety requirements and procedures necessary for buildings to re-open.

But teachers knew that any re-opening strategy that led to a wider spread of coronavirus infection would lead to a huge public reaction and a more lengthy eventual closing.

One important part of the solution to the challenges of re-opening was the creation of a multi-agency operating group called the Situation Room that has been effective in resolving the logistical problems around testing and tracing. That multi-agency approach should be used in addressing the equipment and connectivity issues that continue to bedevil too many students' families.

After a shaky start, the DOE put together its own group to deal with shortages and misdeliveries of protective equipment like masks and gowns. The result has been that such problems have been quickly solved, even within hours.

The same DOE employees who managed to equip each school with the required PPE and ventilation upgrades need to be turned loose on devices, repairs and Wi-Fi.

Finally, the city and the DOE have to deal with the staffing and instructional issues that remote learning has created.

From the beginning of this process, all the major participants, including administrators, principals and teachers, agreed that simultaneous live-streamed and in-person instruction was untenable.

Particularly for elementary students on remote, watching a masked and perhaps even a gowned teacher walking in and out of the range of a computer laptop camera was no one’s idea of good instruction.

The DOE has agreed to one partial solution — a team approach involving a special teacher trained in creating visual content who would work with several colleagues to help manage the remote instruction of dozens of students. Unfortunately, the DOE has not managed yet to hire even one teacher as part of this initiative.

The Department of Education also needs to step up with an aggressive program to provide better training in both the problems and the possibilities of online instruction.

The UFT Teacher Centers, our professional development operation, offer a number of such courses, but they are heavily oversubscribed. The safe re-opening of our schools in the midst of the pandemic is a significant achievement.

But the real indication of progress will be when that achievement is matched with the highest level of instruction, particularly for remote students.

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