Home > Essays > NYC Schools Offer No Virtual Learning in Fall… and Offer No Change to 2019-20 Status Quo

NYC Schools Offer No Virtual Learning in Fall… and Offer No Change to 2019-20 Status Quo

May 25, 2021

The headline for Eliza Shapiro’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes reads “NYC Will Eliminate Remote Learning For Next Year School“. Ms. Shapiro opens the article with this focal point:

New York City will no longer have a remote schooling option come fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday, a major step toward fully reopening the nation’s largest school system and a crucial marker in the city’s economic recovery after more than a year of disruptions caused by the pandemic.

The announcement represents the single most important decision the city was facing on school reopening, and means that all students and staff members will be back in buildings full time. Many parents will also be able to return to work without supervising their children’s online classes, which could prompt the revitalization of entire industries and neighborhoods.

The content of the article was a good encapsulation of the debates that have raged for the past months. This debates tended to focus primarily on the impact of school closures on the economy at large, an impact that was a consequence of public education’s ultimate duty: the provision of child care for the low wage work force. Low wage workers could not function unless they were physically present at the work site and their children could not do well with remote instruction without parental supervision. From the perspective of political and business leaders reopening schools had nothing to do with teaching children: it had to do with getting the low wage workers on the job so their businesses could function. The media’s endless coverage on the debates about masks, social distancing, the role of the teachers unions, deep cleaning, and the deficiencies of remote learning due to technological glitches provided grist for the culture wars that accompanied the “debate” on school reopening.

Bu for the past several months, politicians, teachers unions, school boards, and parents have been having the wrong debate. They’ve been debating the effectiveness of the ad hoc remote learning formats to the 2019-20 status quo model of education and found the ad hoc learning formats wanting. When schools were forced to close due to the pandemic, I was hopeful that the hiatus from the traditional “stand-and-deliver-and-teach-to-the-test” model of schooling would call that model into question and, when the spotlight was shone on it, the public would, at long last, abandon the factory model and replace it with something better. That didn’t happen. Instead of looking at remote learning as a stopgap measure policy makers and politicians could have used the closures to closely examine the premises of the current school system. They could have asked the set of questions posed in the “About” section of this blog. Fundamental questions about the way school is organized and the way quality is measured. Questions like:

  • Why are students grouped in grade levels based on their age?
  • Why are students graded within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
  • Why are students grouped at all?
  • Why do we use comparisons with other students to define an individual student’s “success”?
  • Why do we use extrinsic rewards and punishments to motivate students?
  • Why do we limit the mission of school to academic instruction?
  • What values do we teach children because of the way we measure student learning?

Instead of debating “when will schools reopen” we could have been debating “how will schools operate when they reopen?”

Ms. Shapiro alludes to this missed opportunity near the end of her article:

Along with bringing students back to classrooms, some families say the city should also do more to address so much of what wasn’t working well for vulnerable children before the pandemic, including segregated schools, large class sizes and poor infrastructure.

“When the pandemic hit, we thought this was really the wake-up call for us to do better, to really restructure the system,” said Shino Tanikawa, a parent activist in Manhattan. “I don’t see that happening.”

Too bad the NYTimes didn’t use more of its column inches to explore the kinds of restructuring parent activists like Shino Tanikawa were seeking. It MIGHT have changed the debate away from the “culture war” topics like masking and union-vs-management to deeper questions about the purpose of schools— which I hope is more that providing child care for low wage workers.

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