On Saturday, the mayor announced that city schools will remain closed and maintain a curriculum of remote learning for the remainder of the year amid concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.
The governor, on the other hand, has refused to definitively sign off on that plan, claiming that he has sole power over the decision.
The discord between state and city is underscoring the consequences of what is an already delicate situation for students and their families.
“This squabbling between the mayor and the governor is embarrassing and causing tremendous stress for families, students, and educators,” read a statement from Coalition for Educational Justice director Natasha Capers.
“Delayed decision making has led New York City and the surrounding suburbs to become the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States,” continued Capers. “We need leaders to put aside egos during this crisis and prioritize the well-being of students and their families.”
While many lawmakers agree schools should stay shuttered until September, the governor is hesitant to set anything in stone. He argued that with many aspects of the pandemic’s impact still uncertain, it is still too early to make an informed conclusion.
“If you say the schools are closed through June,” Cuomo said on Sunday, “you’re effectively saying businesses are closed though June.”
In response, de Blasio held fast to his decision, citing conversations with health care experts, educators and unions.
“Our job is to protect the children in New York City, to protect the families, to protect our educators, and to make sure that we beat back the coronavirus once and for all,” the mayor remarked at a press conference. “It's abundantly clear that to do those things we have to keep our schools closed for the remainder of the school year.”
On the whole, there have been varied reactions to remote learning, and the process is undertaking constant evolution as the outbreak progresses. Some officials and advocates have spotlighted the disproportionate effects the pandemic is having on vulnerable communities.
“I wish state and city leaders showed as much interest in ensuring every child from every zip code has access to remote learning as they do in one-upping each other on TV,” tweeted Brooklyn Councilman Mark Treyger.
As both an English as a New Language (ENL) teacher at a charter school in the Bronx and an instructor at a local Hebrew school in her hometown of Forest Hills, Victoria Stempel has seen firsthand the disparity in access to remote learning.
Stempel says that in her Hebrew school class she teaches two sets of twins. Since the transition online, all four of those students have been attending class with their own individual devices. At her charter school, however, many students weren’t signing in to school during the first weeks because they didn’t have devices.
She says that the school distributed its own stash of Chromebooks, prioritizing students who didn’t have any technology, before moving on to large families accessing school with a single device. One of those students in particular, Stempel explained, lives with seven siblings, almost all of which are school age and must share internet time.
“This outbreak has exposed social inequalities in a lot of different ways, and you see that very clearly in the school setting,” said Stempel. “On one hand it’s a logistical issue, and then on the other hand people are getting sick and families are being impacted by that.”
At the end of last week, the DOE had distributed nearly 66,000 LTE-enabled iPads to families that need them, including 13,000 to students in city-run homeless shelters. The department says it will continue to deliver devices until all 300,000 requests have been filled.
Coinciding with the resolution to go forward with distance learning, the mayor outlined a five-point plan aimed at strengthening the model. As a part of this, the city committed to complete device deliveries by the end of April.
Families can request a device by completing the Remote Learning Device Survey at schools.nyc.gov, or by calling (718)-935-5100 (option 5).
Other pillars include expanding the parent help line, tech support hours and staffing; launching new online programs and activities for students; developing a plan for the city’s high school seniors to graduate; and reopening schools in September with the intent to combat loss of learning.
Without much concrete guidance from DOE, the structure for remote learning curriculums has also been largely varied between administrations, as well as classrooms themselves. While some schools and teachers are opting for live instruction, others are opting for giving students more independence when it comes to their schedule.
Michelle Bomser, a fourth grade teacher at P.S. 86 in Jamaica, says she has settled on posting assignments for her class each day, giving students until the next day to complete their schoolwork.
Since DOE recently banned the use of Zoom for online learning, Bomser is using Google Classroom to communicate with students and track their progress.
DOE has also approved Microsoft Teams for remote class, with both applications supporting tools like video calls, pre-recorded meetings, discussion threads and screen sharing.
Bomser has also been incorporating supplemental online resources such as Khan Academy, code.org and educational videos to enrich the students’ learning experience.
Each morning, Bomser posts a message on Google Classroom asking her 24 students to check in when they begin assignments so she knows they are present that day. She then spends the remainder of the day making herself available to the needs of students and parents.
Though she is keeping records that could translate into report card grades if necessary, Bomser says that for her this trying period is more about translating her social and emotional role as an educator to the digital landscape.
“Getting through this is not all about getting grades on a math or reading assignment,” she said. “Part of being a teacher is really about being the other adult in their lives to give them support. I feel like I'm their personal cheering squad.”
This week, public schools should have been off for spring break. However, the governor has mandated for schools to forgo the recess, as well as the usual days off for Passover and Good Friday.
Districts must also continue providing meals and child care for essential workers every weekday during this time.
“The state directed all New York school districts to continue instruction from April 1-14,” said DOE spokesperson Miranda Barbot, “and we’re giving school-based staff an additional four days of personal paid days off.”
But for many dedicated teachers like Bomser, stepping away from the classroom at a time when many students and their families are experiencing difficulties is not an option.
“Am I upset that I’m working through my vacation and my holiday? Yes,” she explained. “But I can’t take off. If I’m not connected to my kids it's going to bother me.”