Coronavirus forces New York City schools into daunting experiment with
teaching from afar
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[March 24, 2020]
By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Apartment floors,
kitchen counters and unmade beds became makeshift classroom desks on
Monday as most of New York City's 1.1 million public school students
began their first day of remote learning, confined to their homes by the
It was the start of a grand, unwieldy experiment for the nation's
largest school system as the city became the epicenter of the
Teachers, parents and students reported promising early results. There
were minimal glitches as some signed into virtual live classes using the
Zoom app, although the music bands at Fiorello H. Laguardia High School
noted that software problems prevented players from all keeping time in
For some the downloadable writing assignments and quadratic equation
worksheets were a welcome distraction from the worrying acceleration of
the virus, sickening at least 117,000 New York-area residents and
leaving more than 100 dead, the largest caseload in the nation.
"There was a lot of frenzy in the morning when we first started," said
Mina Leazer, an English-language teacher at the Urban Assembly Gateway
School for Technology in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, describing a deluge
of emails and notifications from overlapping technology platforms.
"It's like a September back-to-school feeling," she said, working from
her apartment in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. "The kids are
excited. We had one student who doesn't do so great in regular classes
and he was just blowing through all the assignments online."
Still, only four out of 25 students had completed one assignment by
Monday afternoon, and Leazer expected to be making a lot of follow-up
calls on Tuesday.
RICH AND POOR CORNERS
The city's school chancellor, Richard Carranza, had predicted "hiccups"
as the system is dispersed across countless apartments in every corner
of the city, from the richest to the poorest, linked by the internet and
Some city schools have no prior experience with remote learning. Not
every parent or guardian is tech-savvy or even available during the day
to supervise schoolwork. Many students have learning disabilities, and
about 114,000 are homeless.
A week after classrooms closed amid a broader city shutdown, teachers
aimed to get students back on track. Some Laguardia students answered
questions about the use of sound and music in the Tim Robbins film "The
Shawshank Redemption." Max Caito-Jefferson, a seventh-grader at Public
School 9 in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights, read a Dr. Seuss book with his
[to top of second column]
Lydia Hassebroek looks out at the view from her window, during her
first week of home school after New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo
signed an executive order closing New York public schools statewide
due to public health concerns over the rapid spread of coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., March 19, 2020.
Some of Leazer's students were assigned the first scene in the
Lorraine Hansberry play "A Raisin in the Sun," an African-American
theater landmark. Her colleague, English literature teacher Aqualyn
Jones, had marked up the text in Google Classrooms with annotations,
linking the story to her students' present predicaments.
"This is one of the main themes of the play, a disappointment that
life has not gone as the character expected," Jones wrote,
highlighting a description of Ruth, the play's weary young mother.
"For many of us, life isn't going as we expected right now."
Many schools are using the Google Classroom service, posting
assignments to be completed by students as and when they can during
the week. City officials lent out tens of thousands of school
laptops so no child is left digitally marooned, though gaps remain.
For some it was finding a quiet corner in cramped apartments for
children to crack on with assignments.
Will Lach, a 17-year-old jazz major at Laguardia High School, said
he pulled on some pants, kept on the same shirt he slept in and
worked from his bed, finishing an online quiz for gym class about
HIV and AIDS.
"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 was eventually convinced to sit at his desk, and Creamer
resigned herself to sitting with him, "because if he can get out of
doing it, he will."
In a recorded video, his teacher said hello to each of her students
by name, and Creamer saw her son smile when she got to his. Charlie
argued sometimes that he didn't want to do a worksheet, but Creamer
still welcomed the distraction.
"It was good for me, like, OK, what's the next assignment?" she
said. "Then I'm not sitting here and watching the news and worrying
about if I'm going to end up at the Javits Center on a cot on a
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Bill Tarrant, Grant McCool
and Leslie Adler)
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