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Nearly a week into NYC’s virtual summer school, 36 percent of students have yet to log on

July 10, 2020 Alex Zimmerman, Chalkbeat New York
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“Nearly a week into NYC’s virtual summer school, 36 percent of students have yet to log on” was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

Days after summer school launched in New York City, tens of thousands of students — more than one-third of those enrolled — have yet to log in to the education department’s virtual platform.

At least 43,224 students who were recommended or required to attend summer school have not signed in to iLearnNYC, the department’s online hub for delivering coursework this summer, according to internal department data obtained by Chalkbeat. Another 76,652 students have logged in successfully at least once since summer school launched on Monday.

There are signs the trend line is headed in the right direction: About 8,800 additional students logged on for the first time in a recent 24-hour period, the data show. (The figures do not include about 27,000 students with disabilities who are entitled to attend school year round and whose coursework is being offered online, officials said.)

Still, the 36 percent of students who haven’t yet signed on at least once likely represents an undercount of the number of students who are disengaged from summer school. Even if students sign in, they may not complete their coursework. And even after successfully logging in, many students have discovered that none of their course materials were available due to technical problems.

That’s exactly what happened to Connor Freitas, a junior at Brooklyn Technical High School who has struggled with math, whose studies were disrupted by the transition to online learning, and who received an incomplete in an Algebra II course last school year. After a week of summer school, he hasn’t been able to complete a single assignment.

“I haven’t done any work because there’s no algebra work for me to do,” he said. “There’s nothing in Google Classroom — there’s nothing in iLearn, either.” He said his teacher posted a supplemental worksheet, but the link was broken. Freitas said he’s worried he won’t get credit for the course and won’t be able to graduate on time. “There’s no communication, and I’m just left to figure out what I’m supposed to figure out by myself.”

Some educators said they’re nervous the glitches will further alienate students who were already disengaged with school or were knocked off track by the move to distance learning caused by the coronavirus.

“Once a kid shows up to summer school normally [in person], they’re likely to come back,” said Stephen Lazar, a social studies teacher at Manhattan’s Harvest Collegiate High School who is teaching summer school. “I’m very worried we’re going to have kids who show up and see they can’t do it, and don’t bother coming back.”

Brooklyn Tech junior Connor Freitas. Photo courtesy of Connor Freitas

Due to the coronavirus, summer school is being held virtually through iLearn, which the education department first deployed about a decade ago and spent at least several million dollars developing. The platform is designed to offer a one-stop shop for a variety of courses, allowing students to access curriculums on everything from U.S. history to geometry.

It’s unclear why 36 percent of students have not yet logged in, whether technical issues are partly to blame, or how that figure compares to initial attendance for in-person summer school in previous years (an education department spokesperson declined to provide historical or current attendance data).

Many more students were required to attend the city’s six-week summer school program this year because they became disengaged at some point this past school year, so it may be unsurprising that many students are not rushing to complete yet another round of online learning. At the same time, the virtual setup might make it easier for students to participate who have jobs or responsibilities to care for their siblings. (Students who don’t complete summer work can be in danger of being held back a grade or losing credits necessary for graduation.)

Some educators said engagement over the summer is often uneven and they weren’t surprised that more than one-third of students had not yet logged in. But others said they believe unclear protocols are partly at issue and were nervous about the city’s plans to encourage schools to use the platform in the fall.

“It’s a vastly disorganized chaotic mess even just getting the kids to log in to these emails,” said one Bronx assistant principal who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The assistant principal also noted students are less likely to be assigned to teachers they already know, complicating outreach efforts to learn why students are disengaged or help solve technical problems.

Unlike previous years, schools are not allowed to run their own summer programs, meaning that students whose schools recommended or required that they complete summer coursework must use iLearn and its pre-loaded curriculums instead of creating their own. The goal is partly to free up teachers to provide more than an hour of live support to students each day. But it also means teachers are more likely to be responsible for educating students they’ve never met before.

“Because the DOE is making us use the iLearn system, and the iLearn system is not working yet, I have no way to teach my students or to interact with them because they’re not my normal students,” Lazar said.

Stephanie Edmonds, a Bronx social studies teacher who is conducting summer classes, said she is working to reach out to students who logged in but likely found a blank screen where their classes should have been.

“It’s a high-leverage place to start,” said Edmonds, noting that they have already made an effort to participate. “For the kids who haven’t logged in at all, you’re going to call them and they’re going to be like, ‘I don’t even know what my username and password is.’”

Education department officials said schools and teachers are conducting outreach to make sure students have the correct login information and are working to address technical issues, which they expect to be fixed this week. In the meantime, officials said they have provided alternate materials while the glitches are resolved. They also emphasized that summer school began about a week after the school year, sooner than originally planned, and had less time than usual to get up and running all while transitioning to a centralized virtual platform.

“For the first time ever New York City is running a fully coordinated, online summer school program for a record number of students,” Nathaniel Styer, a department spokesperson, wrote in a statement. “We’ve been working around the clock with our families and educators who’ve demonstrated flexibility and patience to resolve any connectivity issues for students as quickly as possible this week.”

Despite lagging numbers, some observers applauded the department for moving toward a centralized platform that allows more precise tracking.

“Even if the data doesn’t look so great at the moment, at least they have accurate data they can build off of,” said Tom Liam Lynch, who runs the website InsideSchools, and worked with the education department to implement iLearn. He added that the platform could help top officials better track student learning in real time, instead of relying on a patchwork of reporting procedures that schools deployed in the spring.

“It’s a platform that has a great deal of potential for exactly the problem the city is facing right now,” he said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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