With NYC schools closed, many parents become reluctant homeschoolers

Families across New York City grappled Monday with the first day of an unprecedented systemwide shutdown of schools.

Learning from home sparked a range of early concerns. Top among them: What role are parents expected to play in their children’s remote education while balancing life’s other demands?

“I’m trying to take it one step at a time because when I think about April 20, I feel a little bit of terror,” said Manhattan mother Takiema Bunche Smith, who held a family meeting with her ninth-grade son on Sunday night after learning about the school closures.

They’ve got one thing down so far — he has to shower and be ready to learn by 9 a.m. They’re trying to figure out the rest.

New York City schools were closed as of Monday morning until at least after spring break, as the nation and world try to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers will attend a three-day training this week to learn how to teach students remotely. Students will pick up the technology they’ll need for online learning later this week, according to the education department, which plans to purchase up to 300,000 iPads for students who don’t have them. 

In the meantime, many parents are trying to pick up the slack, turning themselves into de facto educators. The burden can be especially heavy for those with young children who are still learning the fundamentals of reading and writing.

To help support parents, the education department sent parents a link to “learn at home” resources. Some schools have already sent home packets of work, while others have offered families little additional materials or guidance at this time. 

Until his announcement Sunday of systemwide school closures, Mayor Bill de Blasio had for days resisted closing schools — out of concern, he said, for the burden it would place on city families. Ultimately, the decision to shutter schools left families with little time to plan for at-home learning.

Melissa, a Manhattan parent of students with special needs, is a freelance art therapist who typically works at senior centers, which have shut their doors out of caution for older adults who are more susceptible to the new coronavirus. That means she’s not earning any money right now, she said. Her husband, a freelance photographer, has had most of his upcoming jobs canceled because of the threat of the illness.

“It’s disillusioning,” said Melissa, who asked Chalkbeat not to publish her last name to protect her children’s privacy. “I don’t know how to help these kids.”

In the meantime, she’s figuring out how to keep her third- and sixth-graders on track, as both of them require extra academic help in school. Her third-grader is behind in school, and receives phonics and math help throughout the week. On Monday, she had to spend most of the day by his side to keep him from getting distracted.

“So we don’t know what the state of the economy is going to be in two weeks,” she said. “Like, who is going to get paid? Meanwhile, we are here trying to help our kids learn.”

For students who require therapies, such as speech therapy, the education department has said in-person visits would be unlikely and that they are exploring tele-therapy options. Schools will contact families this week to set up remote-learning plans for children with special needs, education department officials said Monday. 

The education department also shared more training details with Chalkbeat. Teachers will be trained to use online platforms, such as Google Classroom, and online grading tools. They would be expected to post their first assignments by March 23. The department expected to distribute 25,000 iPads next week.

“I know this may feel abrupt and has the potential to cause disruption in your lives,” Carranza wrote to families in a letter Monday. “We are committed to consistent and clear communication with you throughout this time period, and a clear understanding of what will happen.”

But as the first day of the transition progressed, families were trying to figure out what’s next. Natasha Capers, director of Coalition for Educational Justice, worries her children, an eighth-grader and a high school sophomore, will feel isolated without seeing their friends or taking classes they actually enjoy.

“They cook and bake,” Capers said of her son’s class, “and I think for the first time in my son’s academic life, he was disappointed not to be able to go to school. He was like, ‘But we’re baking,’ and I was like, ‘You’re just gonna have to bake with me for the next couple of months.’”

Capers is able to work from home and make sure her sons are on track, but she said that’s not the case for many parents. She pointed to the health care workers fighting this pandemic or those who work in retail stores that remain open, such as Rite-Aid. (The department will turn some schools into enrichment sites where essential workers, such as those in health care, transit, and emergency response, can send their children.)

Asked if she had an idea of how remote learning would work in her own apartment, or had a plan for maintaining a daily schedule, she said, “None at all. Not a single clue.”

Harlem mom Yenny Carrasco said she is lucky that her mother will be able to help supervise her three children, who are 6, 9, and 14. Still, Carrasco worried about her children falling behind on their schoolwork during the weeks-long closure.

“Is the school year going to be extended to compensate for what’s going on?” she asked. “There’s definitely a lot of uncertainty.”

While the family has a computer and internet access, she said it’s not clear how all three of her children could do schoolwork simultaneously if it requires technology use.

And even if coursework is available on paper, she said it wouldn’t be the same as having a teacher directly guiding her children through the work in a classroom setting. 

“I don’t know how with virtual learning the teachers will be able to assist them or guide them through challenges if they’re not next to each other,” she said.

There are a lot of unknowns still. Smith, the Manhattan mother of a ninth-grader, said her son’s school uses an online platform for sharing assignments when students are out sick, so that could be what teachers use going forward. But details remain unclear.

“Is he gonna have to log in at 9 a.m. for physics? Will there be video or audio, sort of, call-in opportunities so it looks somewhat similar to an in-person class, or is it going to be, ‘Here is your assignment, due by this date,’” she wondered. “If it is the latter, what level of support will there be for students as they’re working through the work, especially new concepts? Will there be a chat option?”

As parents navigate the many uncertainties of the next several weeks, Melissa believes she’ll be increasingly relying on her fellow parents. Parents of her sons’ classmates have already created a network, sending each worksheets and planning a way to share books, since the public libraries in Manhattan are closed. 

They’re also planning to Skype or FaceTime with each other so their children can see their friends, she said.

For children who are accustomed to school, being home all day can be confusing. Melissa’s sixth-grader, who is typically a conscientious student in school, wanted to play video games at his Manhattan apartment. Instead, his mom made him listen to an audiobook before reading a book. 

As the first day wrapped up, Melissa asked him to tell a reporter how being at home was going.

“It’s horrible!” he replied.