Parent-teacher conferences in NYC schools remain virtual this year

New York City officials have been pushing for a return to pre-pandemic life in schools, ending social distancing requirements, lifting mask mandates and keeping buildings open. But one ritual won’t return to normal this year: parent-teacher conferences.

These meetings generally have to be held remotely, and many carers are finding that other back-to-school events designed to introduce families to their children’s teachers are also being conducted online. Many schools are due to host conferences with families by the end of the month, often lasting less than 15 minutes.

“Remote conferencing ensures more consistent access to all families than traditional parent-teacher conferencing,” Art Nevins, spokesman for the Education Department, wrote in a statement. He stressed that last year’s evening parent conferences were also virtual and that carers can request in-person conferences but these must take place “during the contractual working day”, according to the teachers’ union.

Department of Education guidelines require school visitors to be vaccinated, which can complicate efforts to welcome all parents into the buildings. Nevins didn’t say if that figured in the department’s thinking. A spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers did not immediately respond to questions about the parent conference policy or their position on it.

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Holding parent-teacher conferences virtually this school year drew mixed reactions from educators and parents, with some saying the move made it convenient for working families to attend and others arguing it would be harder to break important links between connecting parents and schools.

Brooklyn mom Stacie Johnson said her fourth-grade daughter PS 376’s school held a virtual event for parents on the first day of school, and she appreciated the convenience of being able to tune in after coming home from work.

“Parents didn’t want to wait a week or two to talk to their teacher,” Johnson said. “I definitely got a feel for the teacher and his personality and learned about my daughter’s class schedule and what kind of specials she will have this year.”

Others were less enthusiastic, with some advocates pointing out that access to technology is limited for many families.

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“Our technology has come a long way, but there is no substitute for building relationships with students and their families — personally,” Dia Bryant, executive director of Education Trust New York, wrote in a statement. “Actions like this make us wonder if it means anything to us. Connections between home and school can save children’s lives.”

Rodney Lee, who has two daughters in Manhattan public schools, said in-person conferences are valuable because they help build stronger relationships that make educators and families more likely to communicate about issues like turning in homework on time.

“It’s always best to build a personal relationship — look them in the eye,” Lee said. “On Zoom, it’s almost like sending a text message. There are many nuances that you may not pick up on.”

Lee also said he doesn’t understand why parents would be kept away from school buildings due to virus concerns. With many other safety measures being dropped, parents should be allowed into conferences even if they would have to take precautions like wearing masks, Lee said.

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“The school keeps saying that it is important that children go to school. If they really want us as partners, why don’t they want us in their schools?” he said.

At PS 330 in Queens, school officials practically hosted their “Meet the Teacher” night last week. Matt Brownstein, assistant principal there, said that these types of meetings are practically “tolerable” because they usually involve presentations, but it’s not ideal.

“At this point in the pandemic we are realizing how to make things safe and more than ever we need to build quality connections,” he said. “One of the best ways to build relationships is through the structure of the parent-teacher conference, and complete removal limits the power of that space.”

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York covering New York public schools. Contact Alex at [email protected]

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