A Bedford family is adjusting to home schooling as coronavirus concerns have forced the closing of schools throughout the nation. Rockland/Westchester Journal News
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Most Americans are familiar with the sounds that signal the beginning of a school day: The squeaking brakes of a yellow school bus, the flurry of locker doors opening and closing, the ringing bell and unison voices saying “I pledge allegiance to the flag.”
But on Wednesday, the school day began in relative silence as thousands of students and teachers opened their laptops at dining room tables instead of desks for the first day of a grand experiment in learning from home.
This week, the majority of Westchester’s school districts are launching their distance learning plans. Many of these plans were put together in a matter of days, and while districts seem confident that they can educate children from home for the next two weeks, questions loom about what will happen if Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order to close all schools is extended.
A lot of the plans look similar and simple. Teachers will communicate with students through email or Google Classroom, give out daily or weekly assignments and activities, take questions and provide feedback.
But in practice, the stumbling blocks are plentiful. The first issue with online learning is obvious. Not every child can get online at home.
Beth Sniffen of Ossining, director of the Westchester-East Putnam regional PTA, said that the rush to online learning will expose how some districts have more resources than others, particularly when it comes to access to technology.
“Many students will do just fine, but many will struggle too,” she said. “Parents and caregivers are not equipped to deliver curriculum instruction like teachers, and some homes don’t have devices to accommodate online learning or even have WiFi at home. Online learning is another way where we see the inequities in education across the county and across the state.”
Most districts made Chromebook laptops available for students who don’t have the necessary technology, but not every school has a technology sign-out program.
In Peekskill, the district is distributing paper work packets to the students who don’t have in-home computers and advertising the free Internet service currently being offered by Optimum to families that might need WiFi, district representative Laura Belfiore said.
Leonie Haimson of Manhattan, a founder of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, a national group that opposes corporate reforms that overemphasize technology, said that this period of all-at-once online learning could be a turning point for education — for good or bad.
“This will be a massive experiment with online learning, which even in the best of conditions doesn’t work well, especially for younger children and struggling students,” she said. “Whether it will help enable the even quicker takeover of schools by ed tech or unmask it as a fundamentally flawed delivery system, who knows?”
Suzanne Tecza homeschools her son Gavin, a fourth-grader at Chatsworth Avenue Elementary School, during the coronavirus pandemic March 18, 2020. Rockland/Westchester Journal News
New material or review?
A key question is whether schools can teach new content online if schools remain closed for more than a few weeks, said Shobana Musti, associate professor of education at Pace University in Pleasantville.
“With the sudden switch, we can work on reinforcing and reviewing concepts that teachers have already talked about,” she said. “But how K-12 teachers, or even higher education faculty, can introduce new concepts, to cover the full curriculum, is going to be the big challenge if this goes on.”
Some districts, like North Salem, have specified that the current plan is geared to reinforce what students already know and keep them in the mindset of schoolwork. If the school is closed beyond March 31 the plan will be updated.
Musti said that introducing new lessons will be particularly challenging with elementary students, who need to be guided by teachers.
“The self-discipline to do it on your own is not yet there,” she said. “You need an adult who can read a child’s face.”
As a teacher herself in Mamaroneck, Suzanne Tecza is more prepared than most to support her fourth grade son Gavin’s schooling. Tecza set up a daily schedule that allows Gavin to finish his assignments and still makes time for a solo “recess” and some afternoon Nintendo.
The key, Tecza said, is keeping to the routine and explaining it to her son, so he has “buy in.” But not every parent can do that.
“I feel fortunate to be home from work and having only 1 child, I can focus on him,” Tecza said. “Working families with multiple children must be having a tough time, because this isn’t easy.”
In Bedford, Gilian Goldman-Klein’s son Ethan is only in first grade, and her daughter Paige is 4. So their focus is on activities more so than assignments. Goldman-Klein is able to work from home and wants to do things together, like reading, art and cooking. But she worries that Ethan, who has a reading disability, will miss the more regimented services he gets at school.
“Nothing will take the place of face-to-face instruction, and parents are not meant to teach their own children so this is all a challenge,” Goldman-Klein said in an email. “I worry deeply for my son who receives top quality specialized reading instruction 4 times a week for his reading disability as this is a critical time in his learning to read.”
Training and Time
The current mass-homeschooling of New York is an unprecedented situation, but the idea of putting school online certainly isn’t new. The sheer number of apps and websites Westchester districts are naming in their online plans is an illustration that education tech has been booming for years.
Alex Urrea, managing partner of Eduscape, an educational technology company based in Montvale, New Jersey, said that many states required districts to create “continuing education” plans after a flu pandemic in 2009-10, but that many districts have not seriously updated their plans.
He said that while most districts in the Northeast have had online learning platforms for some time, many teachers only use them as “glorified bulletin boards” to post videos.
“In education, we’re good at checking off boxes for state and federal requirements, but not as good at practicing or preparing for those requirements,” said Urrea, whose company has provided technology training for more than 700,000 teachers.
Now, the time for preparation is over. Teachers are having their routines upended, and will have to adjust on the fly, said Victoria Fantozzi, an associate professor of childhood and early childhood education at Manhattanville College in Purchase.
“Online courses have planned routines and structures because you know you won’t see students face-to-face,” she said. “Here, teachers are being thrown into this. They have to take what they do daily in their classrooms, and make it work online.”
Fantozzi said that teachers who have used online learning platforms extensively will at least know how to plan for teaching online.
“Those teachers are used to thinking about the kinds of work they can do with their students,” she said. “Other teachers will need training and time.”
Daniel Colli, who teaches U.S. history at Lincoln High School in Yonkers, already integrated a lot of technology into his class. Because of that, Colli is already teaching his eleventh-grade students new material from home.
“It’s business as usual for me,” Colli said. “Since all the kids live on their phones, you basically text them the assignment, because they’re walking around with computers in their hands.”
Colli already uses an app called Remind to send out PowerPoints and assignments, and this week, he created a YouTube channel. Colli is planning to begin every day with a short video introducing the day’s lesson, then he assigns a set of short answer questions and one essay question. Students can send him questions through the day, then he’ll do a recap video at the end of the day.
“My fear is losing momentum. So instead of waiting for that to happen, I’m being proactive and not reactive,” Colli said. “I could easily give an assignment on Monday, and then say it’s due on Friday. But what I’m doing is breaking the assignments down in smaller pieces, and staying in steady contact with them every day.”
Colli is grading his students like he normally would. In fact, he said he is probably doing more grading than he was in the classroom. But not every school is taking that approach.
In Byram Hills, teachers will be sending out assignments and providing feedback, but only grading them as complete or not.
“I think it’s premature to talk about grades,” Superintendent Jen Lamia said. “I think that’s something that will come to pass when we get an idea of how much more schooling we’re going to have for the remainder of the year.”
Lamia said the current uncertainty concerns her most for older students who need to take AP exams and finalize their grades for college. All of that is hanging in the air, depending on how long social isolation efforts go on.
Missing more than class
Even if online learning is a roaring success, any student can tell you that school is about more than lessons and grades. As children are adjusting to the new school environment, many are anxious about whether the fun events and rites of passage that normally come with a spring semester will be lost.
“We’re all very sensitive to all of our children who are missing these experiences, whether it’s fifth grade ceremonies, or band concerts, plays, sporting events, or prom,” Lamia said. “So any way we can connect with kids, virtually, to give them a sense of community, we are trying to do that.”
In Lakeland, Superintendent George Stone, who is leaving the district this year, penned an emotional letter to the district’s seniors about this sense of loss.
“I consider myself a 2020 graduate alongside all of you, and I was looking forward to this Spring when I could visit classrooms, watch games, play out with the band,” Stone wrote. “Instead, we spend what could be a very large part of our senior year closed in without the wonderful times earned by working hard all of the past years.
“As we used to say in my high school days, ‘This is such a bummer!’ ”