Tensions rise at some of NYC’s top high schools over ‘Zoom in a room’ for on-campus students

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 06: The Edward R. Murrow High School stands closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Midwood section of Brooklyn on October 06, 2020 in New York City.
Midwood’s Edward R. Murrow High School closed in early October due to rising coronavirus cases. By the time the campus reopened in March, some students hadn’t been in a school building for a year. The school’s in-person students though are learning online even when they’re in the building. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

After months of learning outside of a school building, students were eager to step inside Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School when it reopened in March. The scene that met them, several parents said, was bleak.

Small groups of teens sat silently in classrooms or hallways, hunched over laptops for virtual lessons, as their teachers worked from home or other classrooms, the parents described. Even during lunch, students stared at their phones rather than chatting. 

Many families at this and other high schools — particularly large, sought-after ones — are asking why on-campus students are doing what they call “Zoom in a room” if so many teachers have been vaccinated. Some are pushing administrators to commit to in-person instruction in the fall. Other parents are tracking remote teachers’ social media accounts to see if they are vaccinated and engaging in public life despite working from home. And one group of parents is even suing to ensure not only a return to five days a week of instruction but that classrooms will be conducted by in-person teachers as well. 

“No one seems to be taking this seriously,” said Hannah Mason, a mother of three, whose ninth grader at Murrow and senior at Manhattan’s iSchool learn remotely even now that they’re on campus part time. “What is the plan for fully in-person instruction in the fall?”

Mason’s freshman, in particular, has been suffering, as are many first-year high school students who have spent very little time getting to know their new peers. 

School leaders have said that several factors contributed to the unorthodox in-person setup. Many schools wanted to limit student movement and exposure in the building. They also needed to figure out how to keep their array of course offerings as teachers deemed high risk for coronavirus complications received health accommodations to work from home — arrangements that extend through June. This is especially difficult at schools that have extensive specialized courses, such as five types of music or four types of literature courses. On top of that, the vast majority of teens remained fully remote — though some parents said this was because the in-person model was so unappealing.

Principals at several high schools referred Chalkbeat’s questions for this story to the education department’s press office. The education department says high school students are still receiving a solid education and have access to counselors and other important services. Even some parents acknowledge that schools are trying to bolster on-campus social connections, and the situation is slowly improving as the teens fall into new routines outside the house. 

“From the beginning, we’ve emphasized that schools must have the flexibility to meet the unique needs of their communities while continually providing a high-quality education,” education department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon said. “We are confident that every student attending in-person has access to caring educators, enriching programming, and support that can’t be replicated outside the classroom.”

But education department officials have given few details about what the next year will look like, and some parents remain worried their children will still be learning through laptops when they return to school in the fall.

Parent sue to end ‘Zoom in a room’

The recent lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court on behalf of more than 20 parents, is seeking to force the city to reopen public schools five days a week — with teachers in front of the classroom rather than a computer screen. 

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The suit claims that Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Meisha Porter, and the city’s education department are violating students’ constitutional rights to a “sound, basic education.”

From left, public school parents Natalya Murakhver and Allison Weinger, public school parent Megan Cossey (a plaintiff), City Council candidate Maud Maron, Benjamin Cardozo High School basketball coach Ron Naclerio, City Comptroller candidate Zach Iscol, public school parent Stephanie Kokinos, About U’s Alex Coombs and George Lanese, earlier this month in Lower Manhattan. (Courtesy of Yiatin Chu)

One parent who joined the lawsuit said her daughter, a former straight-A student at Manhattan’s selective Beacon High School — which is also offering virtual instruction on campus — has significantly regressed during remote learning, according to the complaint. The teen has been diagnosed with depression and tried to take her life twice during the pandemic, the lawsuit states. Other parents who have signed on to the suit also said this year has taken a toll on their children’s mental health as well as their academics. 

With some of the nation’s strictest COVID-19 precautions, the mayor has repeatedly said that schools are among the safest places for children. That, along with the fact that teachers have had vaccine priority since January, means it’s time for students and teachers to return to classrooms, said Jim Mermigis, the attorney who filed the suit. 

“If the mayor is compelling city workers to come back at the beginning of May, why aren’t teachers part of this? Aren’t teachers city workers?” asked Natalya Murakhver, an Upper West Side mom to a first- and fifth-grader who spearheaded the lawsuit through a GoFundMe campaign that raised roughly $24,000 in about a week.

Mayoral spokesperson Avery Cohen said the city will review the lawsuit and defended the city’s reopening effort.

“We have more students in classrooms than any other city in America, and all of our schools are open for in-person learning, the majority offering in-person learning five days a week,” Cohen said in a statement. 

Roughly 327,000 New York City students are enrolled in classes on campus — which is about the size of the Las Vegas public school system, education officials said Friday. That still leaves more than 65% of students in the nation’s largest school system learning exclusively from home, and many remain wary of returning to buildings. The number of remote students is even higher among older students, with roughly 80% of high school students learning from home full time. Those who have returned to buildings are disproportionately white students, while Asian and Black students have elected to stay home at higher rates.

Bigger problems at bigger schools

Some schools are trying to make things more social even when students are learning virtually from the building. At Manhattan’s selective Clinton School, for example, the 10th graders can hang out in the gym or on the roof during school hours, and they play basketball during breaks, said mom Mikhal Dekel, whose son returned about two weeks ago. 

“They can go to the cafeteria and get lunch, and the principal even walks around and gives pizzas,” she said. “So it’s overall not bad, or perhaps we have just gotten used to low standards. My son is glad he returned, and I feel that the administration is doing its best under the circumstances.”

But the Clinton School, a middle and high school with a total enrollment under 800, might have an easier time than more massive schools like Murrow, which has a total enrollment of about 3,700 in a structure built for about 2,600 students.

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Murrow and the other large schools with brewing tensions are at another disadvantage. Their experienced teaching staff, which draws many families, now means that they have higher rates of educators with medical accommodations to work remotely.

Citywide, roughly 21,000 teachers, or 28% of all teachers, received medical accommodations this year, according to the education department. At Murrow, roughly 40% percent of staff were granted medical accommodations, the principal said at a March school leadership meeting, according to publicly available minutes. 

Many could still be out next year. “Possibly 25 to 30%” of faculty might still require medical accommodations in the fall, the school’s teachers union representative said at that meeting, the minutes showed.  

In light of these uncertainties, parents are trying to push for more clarity on what next year will look like. Parents at other schools, including Beacon and Manhattan’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts, are having similarly heated debates with their administrations.

“I have a ninth grader who has never been able to meet her teachers or peers. That’s been extremely challenging,” Beacon parent Sarah Zafrani (who asked to use her maiden name due to privacy concerns) said of school meetings. 

“Lots of parents said, ‘I live far away. This makes no sense,’” said Zafrani, who was not part of the lawsuit.

She and parents at other schools have tried to raise the question about why more teachers haven’t returned but said they’re shut down when asking about teacher vaccinations. The vaccine is not mandatory, and the education department cannot ask for vaccination records, according to a United Federation of Teachers FAQ. Information about educator vaccinations are reported to the state in aggregate numbers, per a February executive order Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued.

Education department officials did not respond to questions about whether accommodations will be available next year. 

“It might be wishful thinking, but I am assuming we are back five days a week. Most teachers are,” said a teacher at LaGuardia, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity. “The vast majority want to be face to face.”

In-person students at LaGuardia are also learning remotely from the building, and the teachers don’t necessarily know who is in the building or not since most students keep their cameras off, the teacher said.

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“I’ve learned how to teach remotely pretty well. I feel connected to my students. But the parents are right that there’s not enough live instruction,” the teacher said. “I feel like I’m teaching a lot, and the kids are learning some.”

But the teacher also said some families aren’t necessarily keeping their end of the bargain in limiting children’s exposure. When asking students what they did over a recent break, one student, for instance, reported going to Disney World. Shortly after the building reopened, it was shut again because of positive cases among students, the teacher said.

This teacher also raised questions about whether concerns about depression and checked-out students are overblown.

“I think COVID is making it worse, but we don’t have any metrics on that. We won’t know what this all means until 10 years from now,” the teacher said.

Rebecca Kuhar and her son. (Courtesy of Rebecca Kuhar)

Rebecca Kuhar, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and parent of a ninth grader at LaGuardia, said her son’s grades have steadily fallen as the year has gone on. He started out the year fully remote and signed up to return to campus in November before the systemwide shutdown amid rising coronavirus cases. He has only spent two mornings, or a total of six hours, in the building as of last week, said Kuhar, who lives on Manhattan’s far West Side.

“He’s not engaged. He doesn’t turn in assignments,” Kuhar said. “It’s like he went from eighth grade to college, and he’s not ready for it.” 

At this point, Kuhar is more concerned about what’s going to happen next year.

“I’ve given up on this year since the medical accommodations are in place through June,” she said. “But next year, I want five hours a day of qualified teachers in front of my son’s classes for 180 days, as is required by state law.”

He’s gotten about half of that —  2.5 hours of live instruction per day, primarily online, this school year.

Correction: This story initially stated the percentage of teachers with medical accommodations was 21%. It’s 28%.

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