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How big (or small) are classes this year? NYC advocates want online and in-person breakdown

New York City advocates are urging the city to release class-size data on time and to break it into specific categories.

Courtesy photo/Newark Public Schools

The coronavirus pandemic has reshuffled class sizes across New York City, with some schools reporting tiny numbers of students coming into reopened school buildings, as rosters ballooned for other children learning online.

In the Bronx, for instance, ninth grade student Ashanty Peralta returned to her school building for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic closed campuses, and she was one of only two students in her class

Meanwhile in Brooklyn, Wendy Atterberry’s children logged into their virtual kindergarten and fourth grade classes at the beginning of the school year along with almost 60 other students. 

And across the city, students with disabilities have been assigned remote classes that are far bigger than what they are entitled to under their special education plans, according to the nonprofit group Advocates for Children. 

That is why advocates say it is more important than ever that the country’s largest school system meet an annual Nov. 15 deadline to provide class-size reports for every school. Understanding the breakdowns could shed light on important equity issues, since many students with disabilities are required to have smaller class sizes, and a disproportionate number of white students have opted to return to school buildings, compared to students of color, raising concerns about access to instructional time

Overall, more than half of the city’s roughly 1 million students have opted to learn exclusively online, while the rest alternate days inside school buildings and those learning from home. 

Brooklyn City Councilman Mark Treyger recently sent a letter to the New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, saying he is worried the education department would blow its deadline for reporting the class-size data. He also expressed concern that the numbers could mask wide differences in online and in-person classes if the reports aren’t broken down into at least three different categories: the size of in-person classes, the size of online classes for hybrid students on the days they are learning from home, and the size of online classes for remote-only students.

“Otherwise, the averages across all three categories will be far less meaningful, given how the small size of in-person classes will likely skew the overall class size averages,” Treyger wrote on Oct. 15. 

Social distancing requirements has limited in-person classes to a dozen or fewer students at at time. On the days those students are learning remotely, class sizes are allowed to be up to double the number set forth in the teachers union contract. That could mean online classes of up to 68 students in high schools. For those students learning exclusively online, class sizes are supposed to stick to the original contract limits of 25 in kindergarten, and up to 34 through high school.

Education department spokesperson Danielle Filson said that schools are “making sure our students get the instruction and support they deserve.”

She said the class-size data “is always preliminary and even more so now that schools started later and are adjusting in real time due to the ongoing pandemic.” (The city pushed back the start of in-person classes to give school leaders more time to prepare for reopening buildings.)

Collecting data on class sizes is likely to be tricky this year. The numbers continue to shift, as students can opt to learn from home at any point, while fully remote students can opt back into buildings on a quarterly basis. In the span of just one week this month, for instance, an additional 16,000 students formally requested to learn from home full-time. The changing numbers have often led to changing class assignments. 

Treyger’s request for additional data, however, does not account for additional learning scenarios. In some schools, teachers are livestreaming lessons to students who are online while simultaneously teaching students in-person. In others, students are sitting together in school buildings, but logging into their own virtual classrooms

Advocates have reason to worry they won’t see the class-size reports in a timely way this year. More than a month into the school year, the education department has yet to release attendance figures, making it hard to gauge whether students are safe and learning. 

Knowing the size of classes both inside schools and online could be an important clue about the quality of instruction students are getting, said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters.

“We do have lots of reports from parents and teachers that some of these online classes are as large as 60 to 100 students, which of course just magnifies the problems with online learning,” Haimson said. 

“We already know with online learning it’s very hard to keep kids engaged,” and large class sizes aren’t likely to help, she added. 

For those students who have chosen to learn remotely full-time, rosters are supposed to match the size of in-person classes in a typical year, with about 25 children in kindergarten classrooms and up to 32 in the later elementary school grades. At P.S. 9 in Brooklyn, Atterberry said her children were in classes about double that size for the first few weeks of school. 

The school has managed to rearrange rosters to get closer to the requirements, but time spent on instruction has still been limited, she said. Her son’s fourth grade teacher has been breaking up live sessions into two smaller, more manageable groups.

“The instructional time that the teacher has on a given day to devote to her kids is split in half,” she said. 

That has meant that he has only gotten about 20 minutes of math instruction all week, she estimated. 

“I really don’t think he’s learned anything yet,” she said. “When there are so many kids, it just makes it much much more challenging.” 

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