I have been the scheduler at my small New York City public high school for the past five years. This means I create the schedule of when and where classes meet and teachers teach, and I assign students to all of their various class periods.
Scheduling is often a thankless job that takes me away from the work I love most, teaching students. But there is satisfaction in getting all the pieces of the scheduling puzzle to all fit together just right. And there are a lot of pieces. There will be even more this fall — particularly given that different classrooms will be able to safely hold different maximum numbers of students.
Last fall, for each of the 437 students students at our school, I needed to make sure that they are taking the classes they need to graduate, try to give them electives of their choice, and consider any required special education or English language support. I need to make sure each class has the right number of students and that our team-taught special education classes, which are 50% of our core classes, have no more than 12 students with special education needs and that those students make up no more than 40% of the total students. (Yes, there are computers involved in this process.)
Now, to reopen schools, the most pressing question we need to answer is how we will do this safely. The second most pressing question for working parents citywide, including many teachers, is what they will do for child care on the days their children are not in school. My City Council representative, Brad Lander, recently offered some thoughtful suggestions to help resolve this challenge. These questions need to be answered, but we do not need answers to them in order to start making schedules for the fall.
For families to make informed decisions about whether to send their students for in-person instruction in September, schools need to be able to give them a sense of our plans and we still cannot do this with the information that the city’s education department issued last week. For meaningful planning to begin, schools need the following four sets of questions answered:
What will happen with teachers who cannot safely work in person? As many as 20% of the teaching force could fall into this category. If our 12th grade English teacher cannot work in person, do we have to do 12th grade English entirely remotely? Or will we need a new teacher to teach 12th grade English in person? If we need a new teacher, what will the current teacher do and do they still work at our school?
How will we provide both in-person and remote instruction every day? Regardless of whether we have two or three in-person cohorts, on any given day, we’ll need 100% of teacher capacity to teach the students who are in the building. Who will provide instruction and support for the students not there and for the fully remote cohort? A solution to this problem would be to shorten the school day for in-person instruction, giving time in the afternoon to support remote learning. Will we be allowed to do this?
How do we account for special education mandates? Will the requirement to have no more than 40% of students who require special education services in a single class still exist if we can only safely have 12 students in a classroom? Will students who get push-in or pull-out supports all have to be scheduled on the same day to optimize teachers’ time in providing services?
Finally, if parents can opt into in-person instruction on a quarterly basis, does that mean that we might have to reschedule all our students each quarter? Let’s say my school can safely accommodate 200 of our 437 students at a time and that 50 students opt for fully remote learning. We could then begin the school year with two in-person cohorts. But if 14 of those students decide to come back in November, we would then need to shift to a three-cohort model. If this is the case, maybe we should start with the three-cohort model just in case, even though that means students get fewer days in school?
Scheduling takes immense time, consideration, and care. Before teachers can know what they will teach in the fall and begin the far more challenging and daunting task of preparing to teach for our new hybrid reality, we will need answers to these questions. When it comes to schedules, there are always a lot of moving parts; this year, amid the pandemic, the variables are overwhelming.
Stephen Lazar teaches students social studies and English at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan. He has taught in New York City for 14 years. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center.