The pandemic has been difficult for most New Yorkers, but the ongoing toll on students and teachers is particularly unique.
“I feel like I can’t do my job,” said Maggie Slavin, a high school special education teacher at a school in North Brooklyn. Slavin has taught in the New York City public school system for five years, and this one has certainly been the toughest of all.
Merely three weeks after shuttering in-person learning on November 19, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that schools would reopen for students eligible to attend in-person learning. These back and forth changes are troubling for parents and teachers like Slavin, who says the decisions don’t seem to based on, “A precise calculus of what will keep our students and teachers safe.”
Important as it is, the discussions about schools reopening only affect affect a small portion of students attending the city’s public schools. In a November press conference, De Blasio estimated 330,000 students are eligible to attend in-person learning, which is less than one third of the total number of students in public school system. Even when schools reopen, the vast majority of students continue to learn remotely. The New York Times reported that more white families have opted for in-person learning as compared to Black and Asian-American families.
Throughout the school year, parents have been given the option to choose whether to allow their child to attend school in-person. It has been a difficult choice to make for many.
“They were both really shit decisions to choose between. It was sort of like being gaslit,” said Mei Lai Hippisley Coxe, a single parent of a first-grader. She works sixty hour weeks and her daughter attends public school in Greenpoint. She says managing remote learning has been challenging – overnight she became the “sole person in my child’s life, the cook, the cleaner, the teacher.”
“I would love nothing more than my second and seventh graders to be in school,” said Tajhe Sutton, the president of Community Education Council for District 14 (which includes Greenpoint) and parent of two. “But the very first day that we reopened for for Pre-K to 5 in our district, we had [Covid-19] cases in the schools,” she said. “We felt like we didn’t have any choice from a safety perspective” and both her children attend school completely remotely.
“It’s just sort of absurd how little attention and support has been given to remote families,” said Yuli Hsu, a parent with two children in remote learning and the first Vice President of the Community Education Council for District 14. “We are spending something like 11 million dollars a week to keep schools open,” she said, even when most students in any given school are remote. Ten months into the pandemic, Hsu told Greenpointers that teachers and students still don’t have enough support to manage remote learning.
The city has not partnered with any internet providers to provide free WiFi to students. Over 60,000 students are still waiting to receive a device to use for remote learning, according to the New York Times. “The DOE is putting so much of their resources, almost all of their resources, on opening these school buildings,” Slavin said. “They are leaving behind mostly black and brown kids, mostly low income kids” in the process.
In North Brooklyn alone, hundreds of student do not have access to the technology they need to attend school online, said Marissa Jones, a co-coordinator with North Brooklyn Mutual Aid. To respond to the need for devices, their organization and the Community Education Council for District 14 have come together to organize a device drive. Jones is working on the drive to collect and redistribute laptops and tablets to students in North Brooklyn.
“I don’t think I understood the scale of how many students need devices,” Jones said. “It’s a huge miss if we don’t get these students what they need to keep up their education.”
The lack of access to technology mean students are unable to attend school at all. “We probably have about a third of kids who are completely MIA. We can’t reach them,” Slavin said. The phone numbers listed for these students don’t work and social workers are not able to conduct home visits because of restrictions due to the pandemic. “A lot of students and families are quite vulnerable. We’ve had dozens of students have to move to shelters,” she added.
One of Slavin’s students is hard of hearing, and has not received assistive technology from the city. “He can’t log into the classes and participate because he can’t hear,” she said. “It’s horrifying.” Another student shares one iPad with six siblings who are also attending school remotely.
“It’s a false narrative to say that kids aren’t learning anything this year,” Slavin said. “Kids are learning a lot about the world around them. They are learning about how messed up our leadership is.”
To donate funds or gently used technology to the North Brooklyn Device Drive, follow the cause on Instagram, donate via Venmo, or stop by their weekly stand at McGolrick Park on Sundays between 10 am to 1 pm to donate a device in person.