Adams: Online Parent-Teacher Conferences Still Have Issues. They’re Still Better Than Dashing Through School Halls Trying to Be in 3 Places at Once
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A version of this essay originally appeared on the New York School Talk blog.
When New York City shut down due to the COVID pandemic in March 2020, my middle child was a high school sophomore. We were informed that spring parent-teacher conferences would be held over Zoom.
I was excited by the idea. I’d spent close to a decade of my life attending public school parent-teacher conferences at the 3,300-plus-student public high school both my sons attended. My husband and I would arrive at least an hour before the meetings were scheduled to start, so we could take our place in line with the other parents. This queue would stretch out from the school entrance, across the street and down the block. Spectators would periodically stop by to ask what we were in line for. When told it was for parent-teacher conferences, they would slowly back away, shaking their head in wonder.
Once the doors opened, a swarm of mothers and fathers (often with their children in tow to serve as translators, or with younger siblings who couldn’t be left home alone) would flood the hallways, running for the stairs, the elevators and the perennially malfunctioning escalators. Time was of the essence, because in front of every classroom where a teacher sat waiting to dedicate three minutes (and no more) to discussing each student, a teen volunteer waited with a sign-up sheet.
Parents would jot down their name, get an estimate of when their slot would become available, then rush to sign up on another sheet, hoping their number was called at one before it was time for another. Parents who missed their spot had to go to the back of the line and start the process all over again.
When not frantically running from floor to floor, parents spent the bulk of their time sitting in the hallways, waiting. It was a great chance to catch up with fellow parents — unless they had to rush off because the three people who signed up ahead of them were no-shows and suddenly it was their turn.
Twice a year, my husband and I went through this exercise. And, twice a year, I said to my husband, “Surely, there must be a more effective way to do this. Electronic sign-ups? Text notifications when it’s your turn?”
Which was why, when remote parent-teacher conferences were announced in 2020, I was supportive. I couldn’t wait to write a post about how this was the better way I’d been advocating for!
Except, in spring 2020, the promised remote parent-teacher conferences were canceled. We were assured they’d be rescheduled for later in the year. They were not.
My younger son left high school to homeschool himself in November 2020, so there were no more opportunities for us to try out this new model. But then, my youngest child started high school in September 2021 (a much smaller one than the behemoth her brothers had attended). Once again, remote parent-teacher conferences were announced.
And, this time, they happened.
More or less.
To start, we were sent an online school booking form and informed that registration would open at 5 p.m. on a Friday. At that time, I clicked the link, went to the form and found it both easy and convenient to use.
I entered my child’s name. I clicked the drop-down menu, subject by subject. Her teachers were identified, their free time slots indicated. I clicked to reserve the slots. I was emailed a link confirming the teacher, time and Zoom link.
“This is terrific!” I raved to my husband.
I booked parent-teacher conferences with her English, geometry, global history and biology teachers. The Monday before the scheduled Wednesday conferences, we received a series of emails announcing that: To accommodate more families during Parent Teacher Conferences, we have assigned you to be with [a different teacher from my child’s primary one]. This happened in every subject.
Now, I would have thought that signing up as soon as the booking form opened would have gotten me my conferences with my child’s primary teachers. I was wrong.
Yet, I was still enthusiastic!
This had still got to be better than floor dashing and hours of hallway sitting!
My husband and I planted ourselves in front of the computer for our first conference. We clicked the Zoom link we’d been sent. We were asked for a password.
We’d received no password.
We emailed the school immediately. We got no guidance. We called the school immediately. We got voicemail.
We missed the first conference.
We clicked the link for the second scheduled conference. We got in without a password. We spoke to the teacher. She was lovely and knowledgeable, described our child with details that proved she had the right kid and wasn’t just speaking generically. She even emailed us some follow-up documents.
Buoyed by our success, we clicked the link for the third conference. We ended up popping into the middle of someone else’s. The teacher apologized, explained that he hadn’t been given a schedule of which family was signed up when and asked if we could wait to speak to him after he was finished for the night.
We did and had another lovely conference with a teacher who seemed to know and understand our child.
For the fourth and final conference, the teacher sent a bulk email saying he’d had a family emergency and would need to reschedule for Friday afternoon.
My husband is also a teacher. He has conferences of his own to participate in, so the timing was tricky. But, when we reached out to the teacher, we came up with a mutually convenient time outside the prescribed window. The teacher zoomed in from school, I zoomed in from home and my husband zoomed in from work.
So three out of four … isn’t bad?
I still think so. I still think remote parent-teacher conferences are the way to go. Technical glitches are easier to fix than the frenzy of trying to canvass a single building on foot in the space of a few hours. It cuts down on the need to find babysitting for younger siblings. It removes travel time, which, for some families, can add multiple hours to the process. Working parents can log in from the job.
Yes, technological equity is still an issue. But I still believe remote conferences increase accessibility overall and should continue even after the pandemic ends.
Alina Adams is a New York Times best-selling romance and mystery writer, the author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten and Getting Into NYC High School, a blogger at New York School Talk and mother of three. She believes you can’t have true school choice until all parents know all their school choices — and how to get them. Visit her website, www.NYCSchoolSecrets.com.
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