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New York City schools went online instead of calling a snow day. It didn't go well

NEW YORK (AP) — When New York City officials got wind of the major winter storm headed their way, they rewound the clock four years, reopened their coronavirus pandemic playbook, and announced that instead of canceling school, teachers and students would once again meet online. No snow day.

Mayor Eric Adams said it was important to give children enrolled in the nation's largest school system stability considering the massive upheaval to education the pandemic had caused throughout the country. Some school districts in other states have done the same since adopting the technology essential in 2020 to make virtual school days possible.

Unfortunately for Adams, the plan didn't go so well: Many students, teachers and administrators were unable to log in to their accounts — a problem that city officials blamed on a technology contractor.

Naveed Hasan, a Manhattan resident, said he struggled to get his 4-year-old daughter logged on because of the district’s technical issues even though his 9-year-old son was able to gain access. He hoped to take both out for sledding later in the day.

“It honestly worked out for the best,” Hasan said. “I’d rather not have the youngest on a device all day anyways.”

Schools nationwide shuttered classrooms for the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, and some did not reopen fully for more than a year. Some children barely logged on, and many struggled with the social isolation.

The months spent with online education were marked by widespread learning losses. Young students often struggled with the technology, and some parents said online learning was a factor in their decision to delay enrolling their kids.

In a November 2020 survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, 39% of district leaders said they had converted snow days to remote learning. Another 32% said they would consider the change. But in recent years, some districts, including Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, have reverted to prepandemic snow day policies. School systems in Boston and Hartford, Connecticut, among many others, closed in response to Tuesday’s storm.

Connecticut does not allow remote learning on a snow day to count toward the minimum 180 learning days in the school calendar. The state weighed factors such as the challenges of setting up remote classrooms on short notice, and local officials also reported that parents and students wanted traditional snow days, said Irene Parizi, chief academic officer for the state Department of Education.

“Let them have their snow day and go sledding and have their hot chocolate and things like that,” Parizi said.

With schools closed in Columbia, Connecticut, Susan Smith spent the day at home with her three children, ages 14, 11 and 8. She said she likes traditional snow days, but would also like to see remote learning on some bad weather days.

“I still remember being a kid and really looking forward to snow days, so I don’t want to completely wipe that off the map with remote learning,” Smith said.

Adams defended the decision to have NYC schools operate virtually.

“Using this as a teaching moment to have our children learn how to continue the expansion of remote learning is so important,” the mayor said in an interview on WPIX-TV Monday evening. “We fell back in education because of COVID. We cannot afford our young people to miss school days.”

Gina Cirrito, a parent on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said she appreciated the structure the remote classes provided for her three sons, even if Tuesday morning was a bit of rough sledding in her household.

“I know people around the country get really frustrated with the idea of these remote days and not just letting the kids have a day,” she said. “But I don’t think the teachers are asking above and beyond and to be honest, they’re so far behind. If there’s a way to keep their (students') brains a little engaged, I’m all for it.”

Cirrito said the family had to work through some early morning logistics, including making sure everyone had a functioning computer and a quiet spot in the apartment to work — only to run into the district’s login issues.

By about 9:15 a.m. her sons — ages 10, 13 and 17 — had settled into the day’s routine.

“For the kids, it’s like riding a bike. Like, ‘Here we go again,'" Cirrito said.

New York City officials did not say how many students were prevented from accessing online classes but they blamed the problem on their technology contractor, IBM. While both teachers and students recently participated in simulations to prepare for remote instruction, IBM was not involved in those walk-throughs, officials said at a news conference.

“IBM was not ready for prime time. That’s what happened here,” said New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks.

In a statement, IBM said it had been “working closely with New York City schools to address this situation as quickly as possible.”

“The issues have been largely resolved, and we regret the inconvenience to students and parents across the city,” the statement read.

The morning technical glitches only added to the stress for teachers already scrambling to pivot lessons and assignments to remote work, said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents roughly 200,000 NYC public schools teachers and staff.

But Mulgrew said educators anticipated trouble after their experience with distance learning during the pandemic. He noted that by 12:30 p.m., 900,000 students and teachers were utilizing the district’s remote learning system — a testament, he said, to how teachers were able to keep their classes engaged despite the morning challenges.

“It’s also a good lesson for students," he said. "This is what happens when things go wrong. You don’t get frustrated or angry. You got to figure it out.”

Mulgrew added that this year's school calendar only allows for one or so snow days, “so you want to save that, just in case.”

Still, Hasan, a software developer, wondered whether students and teachers alike would have been better served with a snow day, even as he acknowledged Tuesday’s accumulations in the city might not have warranted it in a bygone era.

“It’s like a mental health day for kids to just go and play," he said. "It’s already enough of a challenge for parents to figure out how they are going to do their work."

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Ma reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writer Jake Offenhartz in New York and Pat Eaton-Robb in Columbia, Connecticut, contributed to this report.

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