Coronavirus forces New York City schools into daunting experiment with teaching from afar

FILE PHOTO:  Naomi and her husband Doug Hassebroek work from home with their children in Brooklyn, as New York public schools statewide close due to public health concerns over the rapid spread of coronavirus
REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs


Her students are used to seeing her in the classrooms of Adrien Block Intermediate School 25 in Flushing, but on Monday morning “Miss Brooke” appeared instead on their laptop and phone screens, sitting in her suburban kitchen.

“These are interesting times,” Brooke Wacha, smiling calmly, told her students, among the 1.1 million children in the largest public school system in the United States, which began a grand, unwieldy experiment in remote learning as the coronavirus outbreak largely confines Americans to their homes.

“I’m hoping to make this process as easy as possible and I don’t want to put any extra stress on the families,” she said in the video she had uploaded to a private YouTube channel. “So, just with this week, hang in there, work on figuring out the technology.”

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, predicted “hiccups” as the system is atomized, dispersed across countless apartments in the city‘s richest and poorest corners and linked only by the internet and occasional phone calls.

The challenges are enormous. Some city schools have no prior experience with remote learning. Not every student’s parent or guardian is tech-savvy or even available in the day to supervise schoolwork. The school system serves many children with special needs, including those in the care of Wacha, who specializes in teaching children with autism and cognitive impairment.

Parents spoke of trying to find a quiet corner in cramped apartments for their children to crack on with assignments.

“My husband’s going to be working from the kitchen counter and he’s going to be on the phone,” said Rosie Creamer, whose 9-year-old son, Charlie, is a fourth-grader at Manhattan’s Public School 40.

Charlie would have to sit at his desk in his room, and Creamer had resigned herself to having to sit with him, “because if he can get out of doing it, he will.”

New York is an epicenter of the pandemic with nearly 17,000 cases and more than 115 deaths.

Google Classroom

Classrooms closed a week ago in New York as COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, accelerated through the crowded city, although families can still pick up meals from outside school buildings.

Since then, teachers have been busy revising their lesson plans and sharing tips with stressed parents on how they make children focus on their work.

Many schools are using the Google Classroom service, posting assignments to be completed by students as and when they can during the week while confined at home with their families. City officials have had to lend out tens of thousands of school laptops so no child is left digitally marooned.

Mina Leisure, an English-language teacher at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, said at least one of her students only had access to a smartphone, less than ideal for the writing assignments she was setting.

“I told him if you write on a piece of paper and take a picture on your phone, that’s fine,” she said.

Leisure’s school has decided to set assignments on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and to spend Tuesdays and Thursdays checking in with students and parents. Her students, like much of their generation, seem allergic to speaking on the phone, so she anticipates a lot of conversing by text messages.