This is part of an ongoing collaborative series between Chalkbeat and WNYC/Gothamist reporting the effects of the coronavirus outbreak on how New York students learn and on how educators teach.

Many students across New York City want to return to some version of in-person learning this fall but with significant changes to the ways schools operate, according to the results of a Chalkbeat survey. 

Earlier this spring, Chalkbeat and WNYC/Gothamist asked New York students how they believe school leaders should work toward reopening buildings and reigniting in-person learning in the fall. Much still remains uncertain, with officials saying they are tracking what direction the coronavirus takes over the summer. In the meantime, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have each convened task forces to advise them on school reopenings. We wanted to hear directly from students. 

Of the more than 560 responses, the vast majority of students said they want to go back to in-person learning this fall, according to an analysis by NYU’s Metro Center of the survey results. 

But students — who have spent nearly a third of the 2019-20 school year learning remotely — also described a very different type of in-person learning. Some envisioned a hybrid of remote and in-school classes, while others described flexible hours and staggered schedules. 

“One of the major themes that came through in the survey responses is that students want to go back to in-person school. While some mentioned various restrictions they want in place, others just mentioned getting back into the classroom environment,” said Sneha Bolisetty, an NYU graduate research intern who helped with the analysis. “Some students called for long-term changes in schooling, including the removal of high-stakes testing, revising of school timings, and higher standards of cleanliness. These comments served as a powerful reminder that students have strong ideas about what they want to see from their schools, administrators, and teachers beyond the fall semester.”

The results

When students say they want in-person learning, they want it with significant changes.

New York City school officials have yet to release an official plan for the fall, but Mayor Bill de Blasio has hinted at staggered schedules, face coverings, and social distancing within classrooms. 

The majority of students who wrote into Chalkbeat called for daily in-person learning to resume, and students preferred staggered class times throughout the day as opposed to a rotational schedule throughout the week. 

Christian Velez, a rising high school senior in the Bronx, said he hoped to resume in-person learning but would feel safer if students and educators had temperature checks before the start of school, and if class times were staggered. 

“In my school, lots of teachers just assign work and don’t elaborate on what to do or bother to explain concepts and ideas,” Christian, 17, said. “Imagine trying to teach yourself the nitrogen and phosphorous cycle for an AP exam without any clarification. … Things like Google Classroom are super helpful tools to have when you are in classrooms but can easily be exploited out of it.”

Kashif Scott, who is a rising seventh-grader, suggested students could attend class in person for the instruction part but complete assignments and certain tasks online. (Kashif Scott)

Hope Gotfryd, a rising eighth-grader in Prospect Heights, said she hopes schools keep condensed schedules when they return to in-school learning, and not just as a way to stagger the number of students. 

“My online classes end at 12:30 every day but I normally finish all of my assignments before that,” Hope said. “This makes me think that school could be so much shorter than it is when we are in the classroom, which would give students a lot more free time, and I believe that would significantly benefit students’ mental health.”

Other students said that a hybrid of remote and in-person learning is the best route, at least until the pandemic is over. 

Students could attend class in person for the instruction part but complete assignments and certain tasks online, suggested Kashif Scott, who is a rising seventh-grader at P.S. 364 in Brooklyn. 

“There could [be] staggered schedules for kids in higher grades, tutoring services via online, and some activities that would be ok for us to do,” Kashif added. “Because right now everything has come to a complete stop.” 

Remote learning has been exceptionally difficult, but it could be improved in the fall.

Students described vastly different experiences with remote learning. Most agreed that there needed to be more personal contact and communication with teachers — and more live instruction or one-on-one contact with teachers. 

Marlena Vega with her dog, Betty. (Marlena Vega)

“The lack of communication is driving our grades down because if we have a question or problem, we message our teachers about the issue, and they never seem to reply,” said Emily Contarino, a rising ninth-grader in Staten Island. “I think if we had two days to complete an assignment and had a Zoom call the day after assigning the work, it would be so much better as we could address our questions and concerns directly on the call.”

Ryan Fong, 19, a graduating senior from Brooklyn, suggested that if remote learning was to continue, all teachers should move their deadlines for assignments to midnight “because some students are working in the food and drink industry, and need time to complete assignments.” 

Meanwhile, Marlena Vega, 14, a rising 10th-grader at LaGuardia High School, said students working remotely need to be challenged. “I would suggest that the teachers push us a little more because most of the work I’ve gotten was for review, and if we continue this next fall there will be nothing to review,” she said. “They need to figure out how to actually teach us new information.”

If schools do resume in-person learning, staff must be better prepared and equipped to keep everyone safe. 

Several students reflected on what it felt like to go to classes before in-person learning was canceled — and how they hope school buildings are better equipped now. 

“The classrooms were still dirty for the most part, there was still no soap in the bathroom dispensers, and hand sanitizer more than ever became nonexistent because we were already halfway through the school year and the school no longer had those supplies,” said Christian, the Bronx high schooler. “So the teachers were the ones who had to buy disinfectants and provide sanitary amenities to their students.”  

Jennifer Belo is graduating from the High School for Health Professions and Human Services. (Jennifer Belo)

Other students talked about mental health preparation, considering the toll of these past few months have had on students. 

“I do worry about my other peers who may have experienced strong reactions to quarantine and online learning affecting them emotionally and mentally,” said Jennifer Belo, 18, who is graduating from the High School for Health Professions and Human Services.

“Students must receive attention, support, and, especially, time. School leaders must provide emotional and mental health, as well as guidelines for teachers to follow in order to help and support these students — giving them time to adjust.”