Reflections on learning remotely in age of COVID


We start the day with temperature checks and handwashing before signing students in to start online learning.

Schedules and methods of instruction vary, but from morning meetings to posted assignments, difficulties with technology persist. Students need help accessing virtual schoolwork, finding meeting links, and inevitably one or more tablets aren’t charged.

Eventually, some semblance of order settles over the classroom, until one student has a morning meeting on a video platform incompatible with their device, and another has left their math textbook at home. So goes the rhythm of supporting remote learning during this pandemic, when emerging adults largely without teaching certificates are tasked with keeping young students on track to meet inflexible academic objectives.

Since many schools have gone fully remote, additional support has become critical. This is especially true for those who have opted for blended learning, when students split their time between in-person and remote learning.

For working families, this is difficult, as babysitters are expensive, and younger kids can’t stay home by themselves. Thankfully local community centers have opened to accommodate students learning remotely, allowing parents to work and attend to family matters during school hours.

With fewer than eight students per group leader, there is more physical space in the classrooms to adhere to proper social distancing standards, and an enhanced ability to provide students with the individualized attention they need to excel during the remote school day.

As critical as these services are, challenges arise every day, and there is a need to reshuffle priorities. Our older students are comfortable being online, and often have classmates present so they can collaborate on assignments while socially distanced at a table together.

While this is developmentally appropriate, elementary students need to be more present in the physical space of their educators and peers. Our youngest students respond best when we read books with them or demonstrate addition with blocks, but academic curiosity turns to apathy when they have to return to their virtual lessons.

Stretch breaks for 30 seconds in front of a screen are no substitute for playtime in the park. The kids enjoy being outside during breaks and after lunch, but they drag their feet to the dreaded cacophony of unmuted voices over a shoddy internet connection. This is not conducive to learning, and it is harmful for their social-emotional and physical well-being.

Remote learning is difficult, but less-crowded classrooms reduce the spread of COVID-19. We screen everyone who comes through our front door by checking temperatures and asking about recent exposures. Students and staff members are required to be masked and socially distanced, and windows are left open to facilitate airflow.

Even with these best practices, multiple members of our center have tested positive. Every time this happens, there is another quarantine or classroom closure, and a scramble to coordinate with city departments on how best to handle the evolving situation.

There are calls to parents telling them they will be left without childcare for the next 10 days, and disruptions to students’ lives felt most acutely by our youngest students. Even though vaccines are readily available, our programs mainly serve community members who are hesitant to trust a government and a public health system that has systematically neglected and mistreated large swaths of the population.

This program has illuminated clear measures we need to take to relieve the burden of this pandemic. One is to make sure every single person has access to the vaccine. This goes beyond supply — we need mass marketing campaigns promoting this safe and effective tool, and vaccines readily available in local health clinics and community centers.

At my agency, staff members were initially hesitant to get the shot. However, once a public health expert gave a clear and concise presentation where she fielded questions, opinion started to change, and now many have appointments. People may be distrustful of politicians, but they may be more likely to believe doctors, respected public figures, and celebrities who should be offering a united message to all Americans.

Additionally, we need to make sure elementary schools can fully reopen in the fall. Remote learning support programs have been a fantastic resource in the interim between school reopenings, as we have offered free and safe educational and public health resources to community members. However, learning for young kids is best done in person.

Group games, collaborative art projects, and lessons involving tactile components cannot be effectively recreated online. Our students with special accommodations have not gotten the support they need, but once back in school, they would have better access to trained guidance counselors and social workers.

The data points to the fact that in-person schooling can be safe, with schools in New York City boasting a very low percent test positivity rate. Our students deserve the best educational experiences and resources, and we have the tools and public health capabilities to make it happen.

Opening schools and bringing this pandemic to heel is within our reach, if only we demonstrate the vision and courage necessary to make it happen.

The author is a program director at a local community center supporting students learning remotely.

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