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NYC School Schedule Models – What was Wrong with the DoE’s First Try

July 8, 2020 am31 1:38 am

New York City’s first attempt to make plans for September did not stand up to scrutiny. Is there a chance that today’s “Schedule Models” will contain better news? Should we be glad they were delayed a day – or should that worry us?

On June 9 the Department of Education released a planning document, “SCHOOL BUILDING RE-OPENING PRELIMINARY PLANNING OVERVIEW.” It was laughably bad, except laughing was the wrong reaction, since they were going to use it for September, with us, the teachers, and our students trying to survive it. Here’s the powerpoint. Here’s my take.

The key part to any plan is the school schedule. The powerpoint included a list of options: daily A/B, weekly A/B, or 2/3 A/B (with some remote). These options were followed by “Increase space among students during in-person instruction by moving some classes outside, re-arranging desks, diving classes into smaller groups, requiring students to remain seated during class; institute classroom stays where students stay in one classroom all day and teachers rotate; and/or close common areas and high-mix classes/activities.”

I would characterize these as hopeful suggestions rather than anything resembling as planning guide. And while hopeful, they were not good. Planning is hard work. It involves putting some flesh on ideas, and getting a feeling for whether the ideas would lead to something useful. Tossing out a handful of ideas, without doing any planning work, it’s not planning. It’s what friends do at a bar late at night. An actual planner will realize almost immediately the product of such a drinking session.  It reminds me of an old xkcd comic:


While the DoE people and their expensive consultants might be conversant in critical theory, I doubt there are any linguists, and certainly not an engineer.

Let’s look more closely. The heart of their suggestion (I’m choosing the easiest to follow) is to divide the student body in a given school into two groups, A and B. The A group would come to school during A weeks. During A weeks, the B group stays home and receives remote instruction. During B weeks it reverses. Group B comes in for classes; Group A stays home for remote instruction.

A school schedule is not like a jigsaw puzzle. It is like a multi-dimensional, rotating jigsaw. We schedule students, of course. But we schedule rooms, we schedule teachers, we schedule classes, we schedule services, we schedule special classes, we schedule lunch.

The DoE’s proposal did not look at any of that. When programmers (school schedulers) took a look the result, they just shrugged “no.” Let me explain why.

Space – They clearly miscalculated the space in schools. They seem to have forgotten that each room needs at least one adult. They used odd estimates. They engaged in massive wishful thinking.

Class size – When we divide a high school into A and B, do we get 10 kids in each room? Nooo.  High schools have up to 34, junior high schools 33, elementary 32. A room that can hold 10 people, we can get classes of 9. Each of those classes, at each level, if they are at capacity, would need to be divided into 4 groups. Whoever wrote the document must not have realized that NYC Public Schools have classes bigger than 20.

Teachers – Let’s pretend that we are looking at a fourth grade. 200 students. 25 per class, that’s 8 classes. Distancing guidelines bring us down to 10 students in a class. Ok, 20 classes, 10 A classes, 10 B classes, and do the alternate week thing. Why not?  Because now we need 10 teachers, but we only have 8. So what, two teachers?  Multiply this by 1800 schools. We have a problem.

Remote Teachers – Let’s look at that fourth grade again. This time, the DoE has given us two extra teachers. All set?  Group A comes in, 100 kids, 10 classes, 10 teachers – we are all set?  Who is doing the remote teaching? Seriously, how did no one think of this?

High school – We have a high school that is starting with small classes – just for the sake of argument – 20 in each class. Maybe we can use an AB schedule with them?  We carefully take half of each first period class and label them A, and the other half become Bs. Send the Bs home. We have 10 As in every class. Bell rings. Second period. What happened?!? High school kids get personalized classes. There are electives, Advanced Placement, make ups, different levels. When students go to their next class, they do not travel in a group. Those 10 classes with 10 kids each? Now they are 10 classes with 15, 4, 12, 10, 11, 6, 8, 18, 9 and 7.  Social distancing? We could avoid this by finding groups of 10 (or 8, or 11, depends on the room) who have the same courses. Maybe this could work freshman year, but by senior year it would be a mess.

Push-ins/ Services – There is no provision for ESL services, special ed services, therapy, speech, push-ins, etc. There was no adjustment of ICT teachers (two teachers in a room mean one fewer student. In a room that accommodates 10, that’s 8 students instead of 9, a significant error).

Lunch – for a scheduler, lunch is ordinarily a break. A large number of students can be supervised by a small number of adults, most of whom need not be teachers. The cafeteria is a large space. So here’s a place in the day where ordinarily we have the room, and we can put in students, practically without limit, without scheduling a teacher. But in the DoE’s ABWorld, lunch would be in the room. That adds one period for each classroom that needs supervision – and with one adult in the room, the supervisor needs to be a pedagogue (for our purposes, that’s a teacher). In most schools that would be about a 15% increase in hours needed. In other words, more teachers. By not addressing lunch, the DoE actually created a mandate, but made no attempt to cover the increased need. There are also safety issues with lunch, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

PE – for a high school or junior high school scheduler PE is not as big a break as lunch, but it’s a break. PE classes can go up to 50, taught by one adult. See “Lunch” above for why this matters. We also are confused by what to do with PE with social distancing. Our 65 square feet assumes people more or less stay in one place. What will PE look like? Remote? As many as fit in a gym?  I don’t know that I could evaluate a possible plan until I knew how PE might be handled. The DoE AB plan does not mention PE.

AB Weeks? – this is not a schedule. This is not an idea that a real planner can use to produce a schedule. This was not worth the money the DoE paid its consultant. I have heard $3 million. I have heard $1.2 million. Maybe somewhere in between? In any case, money poorly spent.

Let’s go one step further: ABC, or ABCD? They would answer some of the problems, but cause others. (Think about who is doing the remote teaching, and how much more remote teaching there would be. Think about the high school scheduling problem). This is not simply a matter of choosing the right number of rotations.

Later today we will see the DoE’s next try. Let’s hope, for all of our sakes, that they did better this time.





3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam Noel permalink
    July 8, 2020 am31 6:21 am 6:21 am

    Excellent post as usual! To add to the challenge, how many teachers are retiring, going on leave, or resigning? Then we have a hiring freeze in effect and budget cuts to the bone. As much as I didn’t like remote learning, I can’t see how schools can reopen in any meaningful way. There’s no money, not enough space, and not enough faculty and staff.


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