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Smaller classes, flexible schedules, remote meetings: Some NYC families hope for a new ‘normal’ next school year

A young girl in a darkened room works in the light of a desk lamp. She is writing in a notebook. A laptop computer is open on her left. Behind her a string of Christmas lights hang over a red curtain.
A Newark student learns virtually from her room in March 2021. In New York City, the pandemic has made it clear that schools haven’t necessarily worked well, and plenty are hoping for a return that will be different.
Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat

Learning online made it clear to sophomore Brianna Dacosta that her pre-pandemic class schedule was not manageable.

This year, she only had four subjects a day, about half of what she had before. Splitting up her class load over multiple days gave Dacosta more time to finish work, reach out to teachers when needed, and take breaks throughout the day.

“I never feel that overwhelmed,” said the Central Park East High School student.

Now, she hopes that school next year does not return to “normal.”

With the new school year about 100 days away and few concrete plans about what 2021-22 will look like, schools Chancellor Meisha Porter is going on a five-borough tour, hosting town halls to hear from families.

The pandemic has highlighted, in ways big and small, that schools haven’t necessarily worked well for many New York City teachers, students, and families. So whatever next year looks like, plenty of people are hoping for a return that will be different.

For some, pandemic-era learning has cemented the value of smaller class sizes. For others, it has made them wish for more manageable and flexible school schedules. And while remote learning certainly doesn’t work for all children, some found it has its perks and even hope for an improved virtual program for the long term. Many parents, at least, are hopeful that PTA and other school meetings can continue online to make it easier for them to participate.

Roughly 60% of students are still fully remote, but as infection rates tumble and the vaccination rate grows, more families will likely return to buildings. Still, many have questions and concerns and want answers. Porter’s town halls are part stimulus funding 101 — with an explanation of how the city is planning to invest about $7 billion on its way from the federal government — and part listening tour for parents to ask questions about what to expect in yet another school year likely to be impacted by the global health crisis.

Here are some ways that school communities hope that pandemic-era lessons will apply to the next school year.

Smaller class sizes

Class sizes are a perennial issue for many New York City schools. But the desire to bring down student-to-teacher ratios crystallized for many parents, students, and teachers during the pandemic, when the need for social distancing showed what smaller classes could be like. Meanwhile, large online classes made it clear how impossible it can be to manage too many students.

At a City Council hearing on Thursday, members of the education and finance committees pressed the chancellor whether the city could commit to making smaller class sizes a permanent reality. The council would like to see $250 million committed to that end. The question also came up at the chancellor’s first town hall.

“With the investments that are coming into our schools, we know that there will be schools that definitely will get ways to reduce class sizes,” Porter said at the town hall.

But it doesn’t appear that the education department is earmarking specific funds to reduce class size.

This year, the state approved a historic and long-fought-for boost in school budgets, which the city uses to give every school their full Fair Student Funding for the first time.

Fair Student Funding, or FSF, is a formula that the city uses to determine most of a school’s budget, funneling more money to campuses that serve higher populations of students who are likely to need more help to succeed in school.

Advocates are skeptical that money can effectively be used to bring down class sizes and would like to see additional investments specifically dedicated to the issue.

Class schedules with more breaks

Dacosta is not looking forward to commuting to school again, and she doesn’t want to have such a long day of classes.

Before the pandemic, Dacosta was up before 7 a.m. and spent more than an hour traveling from the north Bronx to East Harlem. With after-school programs and stacks of homework to complete, her schedule pre-COVID often left little time to get a proper night’s sleep.

“Schedules should be reevaluated because we know from the pandemic that it’s possible to switch to a shorter schedule,” she said. “Students should have breaks throughout the day.”

At the chancellor’s Staten Island town hall, one parent asked for students to be given more time in between classes. The parent said students don’t drink water throughout the school day because they don’t have enough time to use the bathroom.

“I hear you asking, ‘Where are we creating mental and emotional breaks for students in our schools?’ And we’ll take that back and really think about it,” Porter said.

A better remote option

Well before the pandemic, the city had once been hard at work trying to use technology to solve some of these very problems. That’s according to Tom Liam Lynch, director of education policy and editor-in-chief of the review site InsideSchools at the Center for New York City Affairs. He helped lead some of that work under the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

One of the biggest unknowns for the next school year is whether there is a future for remote learning, and if so, what that will look like. Mayor Bill de Blasio has waffled on whether it will continue to be an option for students next year. In neighboring New Jersey, the governor has already decided it won’t be.

Lynch still believes in a remote option — pandemic or no. He thinks that moving forward, the coronavirus crisis has forced middle and high schools to rethink the need to have students in a classroom five days a week. He said there could be a movement to allow them to take at least some of their courses online, which could open up opportunities to take courses that students may not have access to on their own campuses.

“It’s really worth exploring systematically what other kinds of models work, that’s not just five days a week, students in seats,” Lynch said.

There have already been some efforts to that effect. The city struck a deal with the teachers union in the last contract to pilot virtual classes to expand access to advanced courses. What Lynch is describing sounds a lot like hybrid learning — which polling during the pandemic showed was one of the least popular modes of instruction during the pandemic. But Lynch said it doesn’t have to be that way, arguing that what parents and students didn’t like were “dodgy curricula and instructional practices.”

A solid curriculum and well-trained teachers are needed, and that probably means that the central education department would need to be in charge of creating and supporting the program, he said.

“It often has less to do with online and has more to do with curricular and instructional quality,” Lynch said.

However, the education department’s track record here leaves plenty of room for doubt that the city could pull it off. Last year’s bumpy summer school, with its centrally created program, was not a draw for many students. And the city has failed to put forth a clear remote learning strategy throughout the pandemic, leaving schools to cobble together their own approaches.

Virtual parent meetings

Manisha Shah is adamant that her two middle schoolers need to return to the classroom full time next year. But one thing she’s hoping won’t change is the pivot to remote PTA meetings.

“Being virtual just made it easier,” Shah said.

With sons in two different schools, it can be hard to get involved on both campuses. Cutting out the need to commute to the school after work makes attending meetings, even sometimes multiple meetings in one evening, much easier. When she logs on now, PTA leaders often remark about record turnouts, the Central Harlem mom said.

“That’s one wonderful change in my opinion,” Shah said. “We have to understand that there are some benefits to this that we should continue to use.”

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