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NYC to launch two ‘full-time’ virtual schools, top education officials say

‘I believe that virtual learning is here to stay whether or not we have a pandemic,’ schools Chancellor David Banks says.

A teacher works with students over Zoom in her classroom.

City officials told local lawmakers that launching the “full-time” virtual schools will be part of the solution to high rates of chronic absenteeism and re-engaging students in the wake of pandemic disruption.

Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office

New York City is planning to launch two fully virtual schools, top education department officials said during a City Council hearing on Tuesday, though key details about how and when they will be created have yet to be revealed.

City officials told local lawmakers that launching the “full-time” virtual schools will be part of the solution to high rates of chronic absenteeism and re-engaging students in the wake of pandemic disruption. About 37% of the city’s K-12 students are on track to be chronically absent, defined as missing at least 10% of the school year, substantially higher than the years before the pandemic.

“I believe that virtual learning is here to stay whether or not we have a pandemic,” schools Chancellor David Banks said. He added that students should be “exposed to the best teaching, the best experiences all over the world.”

Banks has signaled since taking office in January that he’s interested in creating more permanent virtual learning options, even as the city has required all students to attend in person this school year. And, amid the Omicron surge this winter, the schools chief said he hoped to revive virtual learning as many parents kept their children home out of fear of exposure or were stuck in quarantines. But he indicated it was difficult to negotiate with the city’s teachers union and the option never materialized. 

Creating separate virtual schools may help overcome one of the key problems with virtual learning during the pandemic: the task fell to individual schools to figure out how to simultaneously staff in-person and remote classrooms. Standalone virtual schools that rely on separate teaching staff would ease that burden, though it’s not clear if that is the model officials are planning.

A virtual model would likely appeal to parents who have lingering fears about the virus or whose children preferred remote instruction. It may also appeal to families whose children have more significant medical issues that make them vulnerable to COVID or other illnesses. The city’s current programming for those students typically only offers an hour a day of instruction.

Many details are unclear about the new virtual schools. City officials did not answer emailed questions about how they will operate, such as which grades will be served, when they would start, or who would staff the program. Nathaniel Styer, a department spokesperson, wrote that the department “will have more to say soon.”

Dick Riley, a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers, wrote in an email that the union “had some initial conversations” about the virtual schools “but nothing concrete so far.”

If students are allowed to enroll in separate virtual schools, that could create headaches for some schools and district leaders. Depending on the number of students who are allowed to enroll, the virtual schools could exacerbate enrollment problems at brick-and-mortar campuses, potentially redirecting funding from some campuses and creating more pressure to consolidate or close them. The city’s district schools have seen enrollment slide about 6.4% since the pandemic hit.

Some districts across the country, including Denver, ran virtual programs before the pandemic led to mass closures in March 2020.  Denver previously offered a virtual high school option but has since expanded to cover other grades.

Philadelphia and Detroit created virtual academies during the pandemic. Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district behind New York City, plans to launch new virtual schools this fall. Chalkbeat previously reported that as some districts separated virtual academies from their regular schools, there tended to be less interest in them in part because there were fewer opportunities to interact with their classmates and teachers.

Before the pandemic, New York City experimented with remote learning on a small scale, including a pilot program intended to expand access to advanced coursework for students attending 15 schools in the Bronx. 

Still, the education department has a mixed track record when it comes to creating virtual options. In the summer of 2020, the city scrambled to scale up a virtual summer program built off a centralized platform. It ran into serious technical difficulties, and some teachers struggled to connect with students they had never met in person.

Tom Liam Lynch, who runs the website InsideSchools, and worked with the education department to implement a digital learning platform a decade ago, said he’s confident the education department can pull off a virtual option despite previous stumbles. 

The previous administration failed to create a virtual teaching strategy, he said, which hobbled remote instruction during the pandemic. Lynch noted that quickly scaling up a soup-to-nuts virtual school would likely take time, but he said even smaller-scale efforts could prove useful, including giving students access to a broader range of courses, or helping those who have struggled in traditional schools.

“Post-COVID, being able to successfully learn online is just going to be an ongoing part of what it means to be a student, what it means to be a worker, what it means to be civically engaged in society,” he said. “I think the DOE is 100% capable of doing this well.”

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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