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Virtual Learning, Redux?

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

By Carly Mitchell / New York City

(A pseudonym for professional reasons)

I am a seventh-grade English teacher at a public school in Brooklyn, New York where roughly 88% of the students are disadvantaged and qualify for free or reduced lunch. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the educational system in general, but I worry most about the students whom I teach and the school community of which I am proudly a part.

At the moment, the majority of my pupils are reading below grade level (sixth or fifth grade). Some are far below grade level (fourth and under). Unlike many students their age who had the means to do so, the kids in my school were not given the opportunity to join together and form learning pods led by private tutors in order to keep their grades up. But they must take the same state tests and are expected to meet the same New York State learning standards.

A learning gap has always existed, but the past year-and-a-half has highlighted the disparities that exist within the system, especially here in New York City, which is the largest school district in the United States and also the most segregated. This is not to say that all of my students are downtrodden and defeated. No, in fact most of them are eager to learn and happy to be back in our school building after 16 months of virtual and hybrid learning.

When students are out due to Covid, teachers are instructed to make all work available via Google Classroom. I am so thankful for this technology. I could not imagine navigating the pandemic without the variety of educational apps and websites that make online learning possible. Nevertheless, I do not think students glean the most from their education via remote learning (and I do not think this is an unpopular opinion).

Last year, one of the biggest problems was with students who eventually stopped showing up for virtual classes. It was as if they disappeared, and the quality of their work and their grades suffered. Absences were mostly due to not having an adult home to keep them tethered to the grindstone. There were certainly parents who were present but not paying attention, but they were the more dire cases.

At least twice a week, my fellow teachers and I made phone calls to the homes of students who had not logged onto Zoom. Sometimes it helped and they returned. Sometimes nothing changed, and when that happened, Child Protective Services was often called to investigate.

So what happens if we are forced to shut down again?

Unlike their teachers, students in New York City schools are not required to be vaccinated. As of December 3, more than 40,000 ages five to 11 had received the Covid vaccine at pop-up sites in our facilities, according to The New York Post. I’m not sure how many at my school got the jab, but this past weekend I received a schoolwide email sent to staff that listed the names of students who were potentially exposed to Covid. Four of the 60 that I teach were on the list.

As per the Department of Education, these exposed students are required to quarantine for 10 days if they are unvaccinated. Otherwise, they are able to come to school only if they are asymptomatic or produce a negative test result. This past Monday, three of the four students on the list were not in school. I do not know their vaccination status, but their absence is troubling.

As of now, we have two entire classrooms that are in quarantine in addition to the list of 20 or so students who were potentially exposed. This means that the students in these classes who are unvaccinated will not be allowed to come to the school building for 10 days. Because of the impending holiday break, this will add up to almost two weeks away from the classroom.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is determined to keep the schools open. When asked during an interview on The Brian Lehrer Show whether New York should shut down schools, de Blasio responded, “No, no, no. What did I learn? Don't do that. That's what I learned. First of all, there's this truism — never fight yesterday's war. This is not March of 2020.”

He went on to claim that “the schools are actually one of the safest places to be in the city. We need to keep our kids in school. It is the safest place for them to be. They also need to be in school after all the disruption.”

That interview aired on December 17. As of Tuesday, Dec. 21, seven schools in New York City were closed due to an overwhelming number of Covid cases and another 44 were under investigation for possible closure according to the Department of Education Daily Covid Case Map website.

Positive cases in schools are rising, but just as everywhere else, obtaining a COVID test on school grounds continues to be an obstacle. Testing sites that were set up where I work have recently turned teachers away, claiming that they do not have enough tests for everyone. The issue has become so problematic that it was brought to the attention of United Federation of Teachers Union, which promised teachers it would address the situation.

In the meantime, I will be mentally plotting ways to keep my students virtually engaged, just in case we are forced to shut down. The best way I know to do that is through music. Fortunately, it is easy for me as an English teacher. (Music is poetry, duh!) For example, last week students in my classes listened to a song by Michigan rapper “NF” (real name Nathan John Feuerstein) titled “The Search” and identified the literary devices in it. (Thank you, NF, for your clean lyrics!)

This sort of lesson is easily translated into an online activity. Would something like this be as fun to complete virtually as it is in class? I would argue no. But I won’t let myself get there just yet. For now, I will enjoy my students as they show up in real life. And keep reminding them to pull those masks up.



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