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NYC Principals Fear Empty Virtual Summer School Classes

The Department of Education was providing iPads for remote learning during the coronavirus outbreak.
The Department of Education was providing iPads for remote learning during the coronavirus outbreak.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: ckbe.at/newsletters


Dozens of principals are quietly lobbying the education department to overhaul New York City’s summer school plan and give individual schools a larger role in summer programming.

As more than one in six district school students are projected to need extra help before the fall, the city has a steep challenge for summer school: quickly catching up students who have struggled with remote instruction.

Like previous years, the department plans to deploy teachers who are unlikely to have met their summer school students beforehand. That approach, some principals say, is unlikely to be effective in a virtual setting.

“I’m worried that half the kids won’t show up because they won’t feel comfortable and won’t engage,” said Mark Federman, principal at Manhattan’s East Side Community School. “I do not see some of our most struggling students showing up to a Zoom class with kids they don’t know and turning their cameras on and speaking up.”

Moreover, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza pledged that summer school would put as much emphasis on social-emotional needs as academic needs, with a “trauma-informed” focus, along with counselors, social workers and teachers available to check on students.

Schools Chancelor Richard Carranza speaks about testing students and DOE workers during a City Hall press conference on the coronavirus.
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

But the city’s initial plan calls for about one counselor or social worker for every 1,045 summer school students and 30 students for every teacher.

With those ratios, some are questioning whether students will receive adequate one-on-one attention as they watch their families struggle with job losses or relatives succumb to the virus, or face countless other barriers to online schooling.

Learning Loss Looms

The stakes this summer are particularly high, as city officials brace for learning loss associated with the abrupt transition to remote instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly 102,000 students will be required to attend summer school, about twice as many students as last year. In all, the city is requiring or recommending about 178,000 students — or 18% citywide — complete about six weeks of summer coursework.

It is not unusual for students to attend summer school classes staffed by unfamiliar teachers. In the past, schools could run their own summer programs or send students to sites serving multiple schools.

This summer, the education department has barred schools from running their own programs, which could mean more students will be interacting with unfamiliar adults from multiple schools, said Federman, who helped organize about 30 principals to ask the education department to rethink its summer school approach.

“Although it is not enough, one of the few things the [department] can provide these increasingly demoralized, depressed, and self-doubting students during this difficult summer is a familiar face (even if it is on Google Meet) and a caring community that knows them as learners and people,” principals wrote in a letter shared with senior department officials and obtained by Chalkbeat.

They criticized the “one size fits all” approach, warning that students might not show up because of that.

An ‘Irresponsible’ Ratio

Mark Treyger, chairman of City Council’s education committee, said the city should also increase the number of counselors and social workers to help with summer school, as students are more likely to be coping with coronavirus-related trauma.

Given Carranza’s commitment to provide additional one-on-one help this summer, the department’s plan to deploy 170 counselors and social workers for nearly 178,000 summer school students is “irresponsible,” Treyger said.

“They’re almost guaranteeing that students will not catch up, and students will be set up for academic or social-emotional failure,” he added.

City Councilmember Mark Treyger asks questions during a recent hearing.
City Councilmember Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn)
Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat

Education department officials said summer school will cost about $83 million this year, down from $200 million last year, as virtual summer programming will not need school safety agents, custodians, or additional supplies.

They might hire more counselors over the summer depending on the need, but the education department is staring down $827 million in proposed budget cuts.

“While this year’s summer learning will be different in important ways, we’re designing a program that will be as seamless as possible for students and families,” department spokesperson Danielle Filson wrote in an email. “Our number one goal is to give students the academic support they need, and we look forward to partnering with principals and teachers to make that happen.”

Officials also stressed that summer school has previously operated without a guarantee that students would be taught by familiar teachers, since educators aren’t required to teach over the summer.

Top union officials say they have received little information about how summer school will operate and to what degree individual schools will be able to support their students.

“We still don’t have final answers on what this is going to look like,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents principals and assistant principals. He said schools have not yet received detailed guidance on the extent to which they will be involved in summer programming. “Running this operation out of central itself, if that is the plan, is not going to work.”

‘We Could Lose Them’

Nicholas Merchant-Bleiberg, principal of Voyages Prep in Queens, said he is nervous about how his students will fare over the summer without direct support from his staff.

The school, which serves students who have struggled at traditional high schools, has built relationships with students and helped them overcome barriers to online learning.

His teachers, for instance, ensure that assignments posted on Google Classroom don’t bombard students with notifications and make them feel like they’re even further behind. They adapt assignments so students who don’t have laptops can complete them on their phones.

Merchant-Bleiberg is grateful the department has offered schools flexibility to make decisions about how to deliver remote instruction, but he said forcing his students to adapt to a new set of teachers and expectations for just six weeks could knock his students off track.

“Every teacher I know and every principal I know would rather ‘own’ [summer school],” he said.

Given that the school already serves students who have had negative experiences with education in the past, he added, “We could lose them for good.”

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