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Grades, attendance, devices: What you need to know about remote learning in NYC

April 21, 2020 Chalkbeat NY Staff
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This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

This is part of an ongoing collaborative series between Chalkbeat and WNYC/Gothamist  reporting the effect of the coronavirus outbreak on how New York students learn and on how educators teach.

New York City’s roughly 1 million students aren’t likely to return to their school buildings before June 26, which means they will have spent about a third of the school year learning remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Many families are struggling with this new reality, and there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty and anxiety around what it means for students’ academic futures and their well being. That’s on top of the day-to-day stressors of keeping up with school work under circumstances that aren’t always ideal, as students and parents jostle for devices and quiet spaces at home. Compounding all of these concerns, the education budget is poised to take a hit, meaning that schools may have to do more with less.

A recent survey by Education Trust-New York found 91% of New York City public school parents are concerned about their children slipping academically, and 83% said they’re more stressed than before.

Navigating the lessons, printing worksheets, submitting assignments: it’s a lot for parents like Robin Lester Kenton, whose 5- and 7-year-old children attend Brooklyn Arbor in Williamsburg.

“They don’t want to do the work, they’re fighting with each other, they’re yelling at me,” she said during the first week of remote learning. “I think we’re doing a good job of engaging the kids overall and making them feel safe and loved, but I don’t want them to fall behind. I’m also sad that they can’t see their friends in person.”

Chalkbeat and WNYC/Gothamist put together this list of frequently asked questions inspired by input from our readers and listeners.  We know there are still a lot of unanswered questions and concerns, so please tell us what else you want to know by emailing us at [email protected] or by calling into 646-470-7736 to leave a voicemail message.

Will students return to their buildings this school year?

No, says Mayor Bill de Blasio. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that’s not definite, and asserts that closing and reopening schools is his decision, which must be coordinated with other metropolitan areas and surrounding states. Cuomo has ordered all schools closed in New York until May 15, but he could choose to extend that.

It’s likely that schools will remain closed — both leaders and public officials have warned against rushed reopenings, as New York continues to have the most positive COVID-19 cases in the United States.

Will schools reopen in September?

That remains to be seen. The city is aiming for buildings to open up then. Ultimately, the return date will be dictated by public health realities on the ground, the mayor has said. Both city and state leaders have said that establishing a robust testing system is one of the first steps towards lifting social restrictions, and such a system is just in the beginning stages of construction.

Officials in other states, including California, have already warned that the return to school may look much different, with staggered start times and reconfigured classrooms to allow for more social distancing.

Are schools taking attendance? And does it matter?

Schools are taking attendance in a range of ways. Some are asking students to show up to a daily video chat. Others are posting a question of the day for students to answer or asking students to fill out attendance forms on Google sheets.

Officials say attendance will not count toward middle school and high school admissions next year, nor will it count for grades in general.

According to preliminary data as of April 17, only 84.3% of students have had some kind of daily interactions with their schools — whether that be answering a phone call from a teacher, mailing in printed packets of work, or logging into a virtual classroom.

How will school work be evaluated? What’s the policy on grading?

Grading practices and assignments vary from school to school. The education department says teachers are expected to give feedback to students and families about their progress. Assignments are being collected and graded, but officials are “emphasizing flexibility” — like allowing more make-up work and latitude around student attendance.

And while schools should be monitoring student engagement when it comes to remote learning, ultimately, they will grade students primarily on whether they meet the course’s academic requirements, according to education department officials.

Still, grades may still factor into students’ academic records, and New York City has not yet followed the footsteps of other districts that have said student work during this period won’t count against them.

What if my child can’t keep up with remote learning?

Some schools are telling families not to stress too much during these trying times; others are more focused on students handing in all assignments.

There are myriad reasons that students aren’t able to stay on top of assignments during this time. Many students still have no devices, no internet service, or share devices with parents or siblings. Families might be sick from COVID-19.

Officials have said they are aware of these and other challenges. “Next school year will have to be the greatest academic school year New York City will ever have because everyone is going to be playing catch up,” de Blasio recently said. “We’re going to have to find a way to make up lost ground.”

The mayor said the school system would be rolling out a curriculum specifically focused on trauma in the fall.

What if I don’t have a device?

You can request one by filling out this form, by calling 718-935-5100 (press 5), or contacting 311.

More than 100,000 iPads have been delivered as of April 16, as well as 175,000 school-owned devices, officials said. De Blasio pledged to have a device in the hand of every student who requested one by the end of April.

What if I don’t have Wi-Fi?

Students who don’t have access to devices or the internet are supposed to be eligible for Wi-Fi-connected iPads, which families can request by filling out this form or calling 718-935-5100 (press 5).

Several internet companies are also offering deals to low-income families. Optimum and Spectrum are offering free 60-day WiFi to families with K-12 or college students at home who don’t already have service with those companies. Optimum services the Bronx and Brooklyn, while Spectrum services Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens, and parts of Brooklyn.

Both companies have promised not to turn away families who have old debts with the companies.

How can I get academic support for my child right now?

The education department said it will be launching expanded hotline services for parents, with longer hours, support in multiple languages, and access to educators.

“A lot of parents, since they’re dealing with an unprecedented challenge, they need coaching, they need help, they need support, they need ideas,” de Blasio said at a recent press conference.

In the meantime, the education department offers some tech support and suggested activities on its Learn at Home page. Many nonprofits and public agencies have also stepped up to offer tutoring, including the library and EduMate, which connects public school students with college students. The youth-led advocacy group IntegrateNYC has set up a hotline to connect young people with academic support, information about where to find meals, and more.

Are special education services still being provided?

Yes. Schools are still required to provide special education services, including therapies and counseling. Every student with an individualized education program, or IEP, should also receive a remote learning plan from their school. However, schools have leeway to modify or scale back services.

If you have a concern about changes to special education services, you should contact your school or email [email protected]. You can also let a reporter know by filling out this form.

What’s happening with state tests for grades 3 to 8?

State math and reading tests have been canceled this year. Students will not be required to make these tests up.

What does that mean for middle and high school admissions?

Middle and high school admissions could look much different next year. Some of the most common entrance criteria used by competitive schools as tests, attendance and tardiness are no longer in play.

Each school handles its own admissions, so it remains to be seen how they’ll tweak their processes.

Those who are committed to screening students by ability level could develop their own tests (as some campuses already use) or other new measures. Others might decide it’s not worth the immense time and resources to sort through students, especially as schools work in overdrive to make remote learning work, and drop their screens all together.

What’s happening with Regents exams?

Regents exams scheduled in June have been canceled, and students who were planning to take the test at that time will be exempt as long as they pass the related class. There are also exams in August, but the state hasn’t decided on canceling those.

If a student does not pass the Regents-related course, they must retake the class over the summer and pass, though it’s unclear what summer school will look like. Find more answers here.

I’m a high school senior. What’s going to happen with graduation?

Students must still pass their courses and earn 44 credits to graduate. But officials have waived the requirement to pass the Regents exam for students who were planning to take it in June.

De Blasio promised a “full” plan for seniors would be coming the week of April 13.

I just got my middle or high school offer. How can I visit before I decide? 

This year, Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s most prestigious, is offering a virtual open house. Many others are following suit.  Contact schools to see how they’re handling the process remotely to help families decide.

Can classes still use Zoom?

That depends on how your school is handling guidance from the education department to stop using the video conferencing platform amid privacy concerns.

Schools have been allowed to pivot gradually to other programs, such as Google Meet, and the city has not given a hard deadline for when that has to happen. Some schools are still using Zoom while their teachers learn new programs; others cut off its use immediately.

Will there be summer school?

That’s still not clear. The education department is planning for “all sorts of scenarios,” including virtual summer school, according to the mayor.

How can I find mental health support?

The “coronavirus communications” page on the education department’s website includes a link to remote mental health services. The Family Resource Center also offers free parent-to-parent support (877-425-8133). Families can also find mental health resources through ThriveNYC, an initiative of the mayor’s office.

Where can I get food?

Any New Yorker can pick up three meals a day at 400 different school sites across the city. To find a site, visit this webpage. Or, text the words “NYC food” to 877-877. The service is also available in Spanish by texting “NYC comida.”

Where can I find online classes for my child beyond what the school is providing?

Check out the public library, the United Federation of Teachers’ parent portal, or the education department’s Learn at Home page.

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