"The city needs to appoint a deputy chancellor of digital learning who understands how online learning operates and how it relates with other forms of digital and analog education," says Tom Liam Lynch of the Center for New York City Affairs. (Courtesy of Lynch)

Public Schools Need a Real Online Plan

A Q&A with education expert Tom Liam Lynch 

By Matthew Euzarraga

New York City closed all public schools on March 16 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Teachers, students and parents were caught unprepared as in-person classes were suspended in favor of remote learning.

That was just the start of the confusion.

Schools would reopen in October with a combination of in-person and online learning, close again in November after a virus spike in cases and then reopen once more in early December.

By year’s end, thousands of students had disappeared from school rosters, two-thirds of students were opting for a digital-only model, and no one had answers to when education would return to “normal.”

To get a better sense of what schooling might look like once the coronavirus threat has been tamed, the NYCity News Service spoke with Tom Liam Lynch, director of education policy at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

A former teacher, Lynch worked with the city Department of Education to implement iLearnNYC a decade ago, providing online classes students would otherwise be unable to access.

You write extensively on how technology and education go hand in hand. With our lives so dominated by Facebook, Twitter and the internet, why do we seem to be struggling with distance education?

The current administration didn’t have anything resembling a digital learning strategy.  It’s typical for a school district to have an instructional technology strategy, documented way ahead of time. They also fund different initiatives so that you can be strategic and smart about the way that you prepare schools to use technology.

The New York City public school system under the de Blasio administration had nothing resembling that. So this meant when everything hit the fan in March, there was no blueprint for what to do. There was no way for the city to provide centralized support to their schools.

Under previous Mayor Bloomberg, the city had established a $50-million online learning program called iLearnNYC, which was a customized platform they built that had catalogs of online classes they had purchased.  The de Blasio administration didn’t seem aware that a systemwide online learning platform was right under their nose.

"Any child who needs access to a device and a high-speed internet connection gets it," says Tom Liam Lynch. "The city needs to figure that out."(Courtesy of Lynch)

Are there any positives that distance education has brought forward?

What is worth noting is the different blended models that can emerge from this pandemic. Using New York City as an example, one could argue after this experience, there’s no reason why any high schooler in the city should have to go to school five days a week again.

We’ve demonstrated that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of kids can go to school and also learn online, and teachers can actually work that way. Now we have this possibility where a teacher never has to see more than 15 students at once in their classroom. So these big barriers such as class size can be managed and then we develop this hybrid model in terms of teachers designing their own curriculum to be implemented both online and face to face.

What are some of the biggest challenges teachers and students are currently facing?

The number-one challenge in New York City is poverty. It’s a daily reality for the majority of our students.

We should absolutely be questioning the five-day-a-week, face-to-face instructional method for seventh through 12th graders.

Dr. Tom Liam Lynch

Director of Education Policy, Center for New York City Affairs at The New School

Many don’t even have access to high-speed internet nor do they have access to the proper devices they need to learn on.

The next level up is the quality of the learning environment and how prepared everyone is. If you’re a teacher, you need to have a set curriculum ready to go day to day, week to week, so you’re not flying the plane while building it. Education administrators aren’t currently in a position to strategically support teachers in the curriculum design, to translate a paper-based unit, for example, into a Google classroom setting for students.

 A student at PS 5 in the Port Morris section of the Bronx gets her temperature checked when schools reopened Dec. 7. (Mayoral Photography Office)

How do you think this pandemic will shift the modalities in which educators teach and the way students learn? 

There will be no radical shifts in what we’re seeing in schools between now and June, so let’s talk about schooling in the near future.

We should absolutely be questioning the five-day-a-week, face-to-face instructional method for seventh through 12th graders and really consider alternative models. In seventh grade, you might have four days a week in class and one day of online instruction. Then in eighth grade, you have three days a week, and two days of online. This would allow teachers to have fewer students in the classroom, and therefore they would be getting more intimate one-on-one time with students in their physical presence.

I think another reform we should expect to see is any child who needs access to a device and a high-speed internet connection gets it. The city needs to figure that out. You can do public or private partnerships, you could have sponsorships. But we cannot get back into a situation where children don’t have the basic tools they need in order to learn online.

In addition, there should be a New York City virtual school. A centralized online school that has full time online teachers across grade levels and subject areas. Courses should be available to any student across the system. We need to centralize online learning in the city to better understand how it operates in the system. Once that’s run for a couple of years, you can invite districts to host online teachers or classes or sponsor online teachers and classes.

What are some takeaways we’ll be seeing for years to come after the pandemic is over?

The big takeaway is, I hope that we don’t go backwards from it. I’ve been arguing since March that the city needs to appoint a deputy chancellor of digital learning who understands how online learning operates and how it relates with other forms of digital and analog education. There needs to be a strategy so that you can start planning from what we learned.

Also there needs to be a more serious, intentional job of preparing teachers to teach with and through technology in their classrooms. There are so many ways that technologies can be leveraged. Not everything has to go online but there are ways that it can deepen the relationships between teachers and students.

For example, if teachers have smaller numbers of students in their physical classrooms because half the class learns online while the other class attends school face to face, then the quality of the face-to-face interactions can be deepened. A teacher can circulate and individually conference with students, or observe more closely the work they do in small groups.

I also expect that the voice of parents will get louder in public education in the coming years, now that they have experienced what learning for school means for their own children.