Distance learning for students through city schools has been chancy. It cannot continue in the coming school year; students have lost enough learning time.
When the pandemic struck, schools were not ready to turn to distance learning. Many students do not have the technical equipment and online access needed to get involved. In response, the city has stepped up to provide the technology needed for hundreds of thousands of students. But there is still much to do.
Start with the amazing revelations recently, for example, that the Department of Education cannot say how many students have received online instructions or how long. That is not acceptable.
The school system and its leaders, especially Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza, have an obligation to prepare to face all forms of learning that will take place next year. In September, they must have a functioning distance learning platform that enables real-time teaching, attendance gathering, and distance participation.
The city needs to get clear that teachers will want to be involved in actual interactive learning. It shouldn’t be like this, but if the teacher union pushes back, DOE must leave every teacher who is unable or unwilling to teach online.
Students must also be encouraged to participate in distance learning. In addition to taking attendance, brass schools must explain that traditional grades will be assigned, whether students study at school or distance. The reason must end.
Normalization of distance instruction is needed for two main reasons: One, students have lost enough time to study this spring. There is no reason to proceed to the new school year. Second, it is likely that schools will need a hybrid learning structure next year – with some students physically in the classroom while others study online, to limit the number of people in the building at once. This can take many forms, such as dividing student time at school between morning and evening sessions, alternative days or alternative weeks.
The city also needs to quickly accept another indisputable reality: simply put, some students can learn from home effectively while others don’t.
This dichotomy is not only about poor and non-poor students. For example, younger students from all social classes have a greater need for supervision in school than older students. Likewise, their parents have a greater need to return to school. The demands of time and attention given by young people make it very difficult for parents to do their own work at home effectively.
Students with special needs also need more instruction at school from teachers and staff who are specially trained to accommodate them.
On the other hand, for students over a certain age, distance learning can work as effectively as learning in school, especially for students with the highest achievements. But to create a hybrid learning system that gives those who need it most in school time, it is very important that the mayor and chancellor prepare a strong distance learning regime for those who learn more from home.
De Blasio and Carranza faced an uphill battle in discussing this dynamic with parents of older and accomplished children, especially given that they had alienated parents in places such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. However, they must win, stressing that: one, their children can learn as effectively at home as at school; two, DOE has created a fully functional online learning program to facilitate this; and, three, other students have a greater need for school.
Giving those who most need more teaching in school than achieving is the best way to do the greatest good for all.
As long as they can trust that leadership is proactive and transparent in their preparation for the coming school year, students and their families will face challenges.
Ray Domanico is a senior colleague and director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.