School's back in session

Teachers support each other, students

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It took days of back-and-forth. But on Sunday, March 15, the announcement was made: Public schools in New York City were closing until at least the end of April. And hopefully, by then, the pandemic involving the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be a part of classrooms’ history lessons.

But first, it was a new reality for principals, teachers and students. Beginning on St. Patrick’s Day, many teachers reported to their closed schools for three days of training in how to instruct their students remotely. 

Then, on March 23, it all had to go into practice, as the nation’s largest school system went from an in-person classroom environment, to one streamed over the internet.

Training was a crash course for teachers in more ways than one. While both the city’s education department and the United Federation of Teachers union worked to provide everything the teachers needed — even with only a day’s notice — teachers and administrators found themselves picking up the gauntlet of providing instruction to their colleagues.

“There really wasn’t much training, to be honest with you,” said one area teacher who asked not to be named. “There wasn’t much training because the information that was being put out by the DOE and the UFT, they were coordinating the information, somehow just didn’t translate to the school. I don’t know what happened.”

Teachers who were more familiar with technologies like Google Classroom, or math applications, or videos, tried to share that knowledge with their coworkers.

“Everyone is extremely overwhelmed and stressed,” the teacher said. “We all are not only dealing with our own personal anxiety, but also worrying about our own children and their families. Are they going to eat, if they’re going to have what they need to get through this.”

Eating was one of the reasons officials hesitated to close schools for so long. All students attending public schools in the city are eligible for free breakfast and lunch, and hundreds of thousands of students rely on school for at least one meal. 

To fill the gap during the week of training, students were able to pick up “grab-and-go” breakfast and lunch from any local school. Then, when online instruction started, anyone younger than 18 could get breakfast, lunch and dinner for free from specific school locations — even if they didn’t attend public schools in the city.

On the Friday morning before that happened, however, teachers wore masks and gloves as they handed out meals and school supplies at P.S. 207 on Godwin Terrace. While training had technically ended, teachers were still reviewing remote learning and gathering the in-school technology they had to hand out to students who would need it over the next four weeks.

Teachers aren’t the only ones struggling. Parents relied on school not only for food but for a day of child care while they worked.

“For me, I don’t think it will be entirely difficult,” said Sabrina Predesca, but acknowledged that for others, they were caught in the circumstances of “I don’t know what to do.” 

“Day cares are closed, too, you know?” Predesca said. “They’re not going to have people to watch their kids.”

Predesca has someone to watch her kids while she’s at work at a Brooklyn nonprofit. But for people without family, finding someone to supervise their children in the midst of the crisis is a struggle.

Still, the school district is providing what support they can for students and parents.

“This school is great,” Predesca said “This school is great, I can’t complain. I hear friends who talk about their kids’ schools and they’re confused. But here, always, pretty on point. The teams work pretty closely together, and they’re great.”

Anthony Hilliard, a physical education teacher at P.S. 7 Milton Fein School, just a few blocks from P.S. 207, said he was feeling optimistic about public education over the next few weeks.

“What our expectations are is we kind of had a couple choices that we can do,” he said. “We can set up pages via Facebook, or go onto Google Classrooms, and then create a class page where you can upload videos, messages, daily calendars, all that. That seemed to be the majority of what our school chose to do.”

Hilliard’s experience will be a little different from “classroom teachers,” since he’s working to get kids up and active, rather than encouraging them to focus on algebra or history.

Still, he said, “it’s going to be a challenge.

“How it’s going to work is teachers are going to send out an email either today or tomorrow, so they’ll be able to have access to those links,” he said. “Classroom expectations are going to begin on Monday.”

Administrators had passed down DOE expectations, Hilliard added, and the school’s technology teacher helped make these virtual classrooms possible.

“It’s all of us, in-house, everyone just trying to stay cool, calm and collected,” he said. “Trying to help each other out.”

It was hard to put together that program, Hilliard said, and to make it “the best that it can be.”

Teachers were also printing packets and worksheets for families who might not have access to the internet.

“We’re trying to do what we can for them,” he said.

Hilliard and his fellow physical education teachers bounced ideas off of each other, he said, then uploaded “as much as possible.” That included writing prompts, trivia, daily challenges. One of the goals was to try to take student’s minds off of being stuck inside their homes. 

Students aren’t the only ones in need of some support. Educators had to try to keep each other in good spirits over their three days of training.

“We are kind of trying to spread our knowledge the best we can and support each other the best we can,” the teacher said. “All without hugging each other or coming within six feet of each other.”

— Photo editor Julius Constantine Motal contributed to this report.

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