When the coronavirus pandemic closed the city’s public schools on March 16th, the country’s largest school system—including its 1.1 million students, and 75,000 teachers—lurched into chaos.
Officials said learning would shift online, but many found a digital divide too wide to cross easily.
“This year will be the biggest crisis the system has faced in modern history,” said Mark Dunetz, president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit that provides city educators with tools and resources.
“Every teacher became a first-year teacher,” said Lynette Guastaferro, chief executive officer of Teaching Matters, a nonprofit dedicated to boosting teacher effectiveness.
Quickly recognizing the enormity of the challenges, The Trust helped these and other nonprofits tackle necessary system-wide adaptations, and target the needs of children for whom the switch was particularly difficult.
Helping teachers adapt
“When schools moved to remote learning in March, thousands of the city’s students were shut out,” said Eve Stotland, The Trust program officer for education and human justice. “Remote learning simply wasn’t designed for families who don’t have internet access, have never owned a computer, don’t speak English, or have children with disabilities. Thanks to our remarkable grantees, parents have begun to receive the help they need to navigate remote learning.”
“Teachers had to completely redesign the way they were communicating and teaching children overnight,” Guastaferro said.
At Teaching Matters, staff “came together and started dividing and conquering on creating high-quality content to push out to schools,” said Autumn Figueroa, a senior education consultant.
This year will be the biggest crisis the system has faced in modern history.”
— Mark Dunetz, president of New Visions for Public Schools
In one long week, Teaching Matters staff created online lessons across all subject areas for kindergarten through eighth grade and posted it online for teachers to make their own. “It went viral,” Guastaferro said, noting they recorded 100,000 downloads.
Guastaferro recalled that her staff began to get “love notes” from teachers thanking them for the resources, and asking: “Can you do more?” The team took a breath and did more. At schools where Figueroa had been coaching, she sat down with staff and laid out their goals for the semester and worked backwards to figure out how to get there.
Guastaferro noted that the city distributed thousands of devices to students and “there were one or two kids in every classroom that were doing better than ever—but that’s one or two,” adding a student’s success varied by age, their ability to work independently, and their home situation.
Using data to track students’ progress
Because each school and each teacher scrambled to carry on, the already complicated city school system became a hodge-podge with administrators struggling to monitor how students were doing in a given school, district, or across the city. New Visions had already been working with nearly 750 schools on a portal to make data easily accessible to teachers and administrators. As more teachers adopted the free Google online systems, New Visions brought more school data on attendance and engagement into the portal.
“There was a tremendous urgency to learn which students were engaging and how they were engaging,” Dunetz said. With more data available, New Visions could help schools quickly target their efforts to help struggling students and then create consistency across classrooms about what students were being asked to do.
To help schools outside its network adapt to the new online tools, New Visions held online trainings for teachers and administrators. “We saw a massive spike,” Dunetz said. “Clearly people were hungry for it.”
New Visions got 200 new schools to connect to its data portal by the end of the summer, Dunetz said, and is working with the Department of Education to expand that number this fall so the central administration can get a clear picture of how students are doing citywide.
For homeless families and children with disabilities, remote learning adds layers of difficulty.
For the homeless families at three shelters operated by BronxWorks, the pandemic caused an array of problems, beginning with staying safe in quarantine and getting food, which had been provided to children for free at schools.
“A hungry child is not going to be able to concentrate on learning,” said Eileen Torres, the president of BronxWorks.
“For me it was nerve-wracking, but it turned out to be a positive experience,” said Lucinda Lennon, who has been at the BronxWorks Nelson Avenue family residence with her two children. They began remote learning on their cell phones, but didn’t have enough data on their plan.
Fortunately, BronxWorks was able to provide devices and reliable internet connections to their families and keep them updated.
Keyandre Dreher, who was also at the BronxWorks facility with her children, recalled, “They said, ‘Just give us a little bit of time. We got you.’ It gave us a little more calm.”
In addition to managing the daily routines of three elementary-school students and one middle-school student, Dreher was in school herself to be a nurse’s assistant. Each night, she’d teach herself her son’s math lessons so she could help him the next day. “I was a busy mama,” she said. “To me, education is important, particularly for my children, because it can take you anywhere you want to go.”
“I literally turned the living room into a classroom,” Lennon said, working to make sure her children woke up on time and got dressed just as if they were going to school. She sat in on lessons and handled any issues. “All the teachers know me very well.”
“Education is at the top of the list,” Lennon said. “First you have to be smart, and then you have the keys to the world.”
Even before the pandemic, homeless children had low school attendance rates. BronxWorks tried to close technology gaps. It trained staff to help families use the new technology and access online learning. The group reconfigured its common spaces so that students can work together while maintaining social distance and modified its programming to reinforce learning.
Children with disabilities
For the families of the 300,000 children with disabilities in New York City, the move to remote learning sparked confusion as they tried desperately to maintain the related services their children needed, such as speech therapy, physical therapy, and counseling. Evaluation meetings to determine students’ needs were halted, adding more stress to families.
Barbara Glassman, executive director at INCLUDEnyc, noted that students with disabilities have a graduation rate of 50 percent compared to 81 percent for the general school population, and she is worried the disruptions will widen that gap.
Glassman said INCLUDEnyc was able to pivot quickly to move its services online, advising parents and helping them to advocate for what their children need.
“Their whole world is different,” she said. “None of our work looks the same.”
As the semester went on, visits to INCLUDEnyc’s website doubled, and visits to its Spanish-language website rose by 65 percent. It expanded its phone Help Line hours and its social media presence to help parents stay updated in the ever-shifting landscape.
“It didn’t go well the first month,” said Acola McKnight, who has a five-year-old with ADHD. “It seemed like the school didn’t have a lot of answers from the DOE while others like INCLUDEnyc did.”
McKnight said her son went from having a support team of seven adults—including physical and occupational therapists—to one: her. A single mom of two boys who had just started a new job, McKnight said, “It was overwhelming. I was just very much frustrated and filled with anxiety.
“It’s extremely important that he has a solid education,” McKnight said. “Just because he has a delay or a different way of learning—that shouldn’t stop him.”
While these nonprofits made some progress fighting a difficult situation, all knew the rough ride was not over.
“I have never seen principals so burnt out in my entire career,” said Guastaferro.
New challenges for the fall
As educators and families look ahead, they are preparing for a new challenge: blended learning, where students are both online and attending school part-time.
“We are going to another model of instruction that people don’t have experience with,” Guastaferro said. “This is more complicated.”
To get ready, Teaching Matters has created resources that will help school staff ensure students are moving forward whether they are in the classroom or online.
Glassman noted that for families of children with disabilities, transportation will be a “huge issue with cascading impacts” on parents’ schedules.
“We have to make sure not to transfer responsibility from school to parent—they have to be in partnership,” Glassman said.
“This just keeps going: there’s new problem after new problem,” said Glassman. “It’s so unpredictable, there’s so much uncertainty.”
As educators and families tackle the daunting challenges of the new school year, The Trust will be working closely with the city’s nonprofits to smooth the way and bridge the digital divide.
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