The scale of need among the city’s public school students is also unmatched anywhere else in the country, making reopening even more challenging: The vast majority of New York City students are low-income and nonwhite, and the city is home to about 111,000 homeless students as well as 200,000 children with disabilities.
City officials described a series of conversations over the summer in which they tried to determine if one vulnerable group or another should get priority for classroom instruction, but the exercise stalled when they found that the vast majority of students were at risk.
Asked recently what the city was doing to improve online learning for those students, the schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, said, “It’s not sexy-sounding, it’s not big newsworthy, but we’re actually taking what teachers are doing and sharing those best practices with other teachers.”
Indeed, teachers and principals said they had largely been left to their own devices.
Elsa Gilheany, a kindergarten teacher in the Bronx, spends many mornings tying her laundry bag around her shoulders to resemble a cape, in order to transform into what she calls a reading superhero. She kicks off a round of “pointer power,” in which her students point to a word on their screen and sound it out, and “snap power,” when children are asked to quickly identify words.
But even with engaged students and parents, Ms. Gilheany said, “It’s so much harder to do this through a computer, as opposed to a child being able to physically touch a book.”
Nikki Cistac, a high school English teacher in Manhattan, has sent copies of “The Great Gatsby” in Spanish to students’ parents who do not speak English at home, so they can follow along with their children. She asked students to create a playlist of their favorite songs, which Ms. Cistac lip-synchs on camera as students log into class.
Now, she said, “kids are rarely late.”
Teachers across the city said they had learned to appreciate breakthroughs in virtual learning. For Matt Baker, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn, that moment came a few weeks ago, when his students starting singing along to a tune intended to help them memorize the quadratic formula.
But those victories can feel all too rare.
“It’s hard to get a good gauge on whether what you’re doing is working,” Mr. Baker said. “You kind of put it all out there. It’s a lot of hoping.”