New York City officials have pushed for the return of pre-pandemic life in schools, ending social distancing requirements, revoking mask mandates, and keeping buildings open. But one ritual won’t revert to normal this year: parent-teacher conferences.
Those meetings must generally be held remotely and many caregivers are finding that other back-to-school events meant to introduce families to their children’s teachers are also being conducted online. Many schools are scheduled to host conferences, which often last less than 15 minutes, with families by the end of the month.
“Remote conferences ensure more consistent access to all families than the traditional parent teacher conference,” education department spokesperson Art Nevins wrote in a statement. He emphasized that evening parent conferences were also virtual last year and that caregivers may request in-person conferences, though according to the teachers union those must occur “during the contractual workday.”
According to education department policy, school visitors must be vaccinated, which may complicate efforts to welcome all parents into buildings. Nevins did not say whether that played a role in the department’s thinking. A United Federation of Teachers spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about the parent conference policy or their position on it.
Keeping parent-teacher conferences virtual this school year prompted mixed reactions from educators and parents, with some saying the move makes it convenient for working families to participate and others arguing that it will be harder to forge crucial bonds between parents and schools.
Brooklyn mom Stacie Johnson said her fourth grade daughter’s school, P.S. 376, held a virtual event for parents on the first day of school, and she appreciated the convenience of being able to tune in after she got home from work.
“Parents didn’t want to wait a week or two to have a conversation with their teacher,” Johnson said. “I definitely got a sense of the teacher and his personality and learned about my daughter’s schedule and what kind of specials she’ll have this year.”
Others were less enthusiastic, with some advocates pointing out that access to technology is limited for many families.
“Our technology has come a long way, but there’s no replacement for building relationships with students and their families — in-person,” Dia Bryant, executive director of Education Trust New York, wrote in a statement. “Actions like these beg us to wonder if that’s something we care about. Connections between home and school can save children’s lives.”
Rodney Lee, who has two daughters in Manhattan public schools, said in-person conferences are valuable because they help build stronger ties that make it more likely for educators and families to communicate about issues like whether homework is turned in on time.
“It’s always best to develop a relationship in person — look them in the eye,” Lee said. “On Zoom, it’s like sending a text almost. There’s a lot of nuances you might not pick up on.”
Lee also said he didn’t understand why parents would be kept out of school buildings due to virus-related concerns. Given that many other safety measures have been dropped, Lee said parents should be allowed in for conferences, even if they were required to take precautions such as wearing masks.
“The school consistently says it’s important for kids to be in school. If they really want us to be partners then why don’t they want us in their schools?” he said.
At P.S. 330 in Queens, school officials hosted their “meet the teacher” night virtually last week. Matt Brownstein, an assistant principal there, said those types of meetings are “tolerable” virtually because they typically involve presentations, but it’s not ideal.
“At this point in the pandemic we recognize how to do things safely and more than ever we need to build quality connections,” he said. “One of the best avenues we have to build relationships is the parent-teacher conference structure and making it fully remote limits the power of that space.”
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.