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New York City schools' remote opening is off to a bumpy, stressful start

Jeffery White teaches ninth grade special education math and science at Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn. He described the start of remote teaching -- with teachers in empty classrooms, but students at home -- as disorganized and stress-inducing.

There are constant changes to schedules and class assignments, he said, and serious difficulties in communicating those changes to parents and students.

"It's very hectic because teachers are assuming so much more responsibility than we should have to," he said.

The nation's largest school district, which teaches over 1.1 million students, opened for in-person classes Monday for students in 3K, pre-K and District 75 schools, which teach special education. The rest of students began the school year fully remote with expectations of a phased in-person opening next week.

With the limited in-person openings, New York has taken a step no other major city has even attempted. The Los Angeles Unified School District and the Chicago Public Schools, the nation's second- and third-largest school systems, both plan to open remotely.
In NYC, parents were given the option of choosing full-time remote learning or a blended learning model in which students attend in-person classes two or three days per week. In-person openings had been scheduled to begin for everyone on Monday, but Mayor Bill de Blasio and teacher's union leaders agreed to delay the plan amid ongoing concerns over safety and staffing related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

That was the second such delay in the past few weeks, and the back and forth has rankled parents hoping for a clear plan.

De Blasio acknowledged the "whiplash" of the last-minute changes but said they were pushing forward.

"I think they understand we are going through a pandemic, they understand that everyone is working nonstop trying to fix these really complex problems, and I know they will find a way forward," de Blasio said.

Karla Moncada, who lives in Brooklyn, told CNN her 13-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter began classes remotely on Monday. She said she has felt overwhelmed trying to balance her own responsibilities with her children's school needs, and frustrated by the repeated last-minute delays.

"We're definitely not ready to do this. I feel it's a failure. They should just stop and get a real plan and help support teachers that are going through so much right now," she said. "It's crazy for us, I can't imagine how crazy for teachers it is."

Julia O'Brien, another parent, told CNN affiliate WCBS that the remote learning took up much of her time.

"My day was pretty much being a first-grade co-teacher for my little guy," she said.

Struggles with technology and resources

The start of every school year is stressful, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made this one uniquely difficult.

White said classroom assignments are in flux based on concerns about proper ventilation. Schedules change by the day. Many students, particularly students of color, do not have access to the technology needed for remote learning, or do not know how to use the online learning platform.

He was assigned about 25 students for his virtual class -- but he has only taught about half or less than half so far.

Meanwhile, he and other teachers have had to take on administrative and programming roles, including emailing with parents, even though they may not know the actual plans. During an orientation Q&A with students last week, White said he couldn't answer 90% of the questions asked.

He said he is hopeful that the situation will improve over time, but for now, he has to remind himself of his motto: "It is what it is."

"When I say that to myself, I say things are out of my control, out of my hands. I'm looking forward to the day things get better and I'm in my routine and all my responsibility is to teach and serve Special Education students I have been put into my schools to serve," he said. "I can only imagine what the students are going through."

Moncada said she has seen the stress in teachers' faces and she thinks this unsettled opening has been tough on everyone.

"I think it's unfair for them, for us, for everyone," she said.

Covid-19 remains top of mind

Still, with all the logistics issues, Covid-19 remains the primary concern.

After its peak in March and April, New York has had relatively low numbers of positive cases over the summer. The city's 7-day average of daily new cases has hovered between 200 and 300 since late July, according to city data.
To avoid another such outbreak, the city set up strict protocols for what to do when there are inevitably Covid-19 cases. One confirmed case in a classroom will result in that class being closed for 14 days and the students and staff in close contact self-quarantining. Two cases in different classrooms will result in the entire school being closed.
If the test positivity rate goes above 3% over a 7-day average, all schools will close, the Department of Education has said. The current positivity rate is just over 1% and has not been over 3% for a single day since June 7th.
Data from the Department of Education, analyzed by Gothamist/WNYC, show that over 100 schools buildings have had Covid-19 cases since teachers returned to class earlier this month. Six schools have already closed temporarily.

The possibility of an outbreak spreading from those in school into the community remains top of mind.

"My fear, right now, is I'm going to make my students sick, and then I'm going to go home and make my daughter sick, and then she's going to go to school and make her teacher sick," Sarah Yorra, who works at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, told WCBS.

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