Remote Learning for three in the age of COVID-19
Stephon Johnson | 9/3/2020, midnight
Tamika Hall is struggling with the right way to educate her kids during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her decision to homeschool her children was wrapped in the fear of putting her children in harm’s way if they went back into an actual school building. She didn’t want to lose them.
“I have some errands as I have decided to create a classroom type environment inside my apartment,” said Hall while walking through the IKEA in Red Hook, Brooklyn. “I’m trying to set up the classroom…on the hunt for L-shaped desks.”
Hall has six children, three of them being school age. One starts 6th grade at Tompkins Square Middle School. The other two start 3rd and 4th grade at The Neighborhood School in the East Village of Manhattan. She said the city’s plan isn’t good enough for her. She also said other parents of children at The Neighborhood School agreed about the dangers of sending their kids inside the school.
“Loss” and “danger” are words that the full-time marketing director could go without hearing for a while.
COVID-19 conspired with family tragedy to bring Hall to this point. The beginning of the lockdown around the city didn’t lock her away from heartbreak. On April 7, her aunt Virginia Rountree, 89, died of COVID at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway. Rountree’s children, Deborah and Patrick, both tested positive for the COVID antibodies.
Because Hall went to her house to check on her before her passing, she’s getting tested for the coronavirus as well. Losing one of the most important people in her life affected Hall deeply. But tragedy wasn’t done with her yet.
Nine days after Rountree died, Hall’s father Wesley Hall, 68, died in his home of gastric cancer. “I came home from Havana the week the kid’s school closed and I had to quarantine,” said Hall. “Then, I had to leave to go take care of my Dad. Because of COVID restrictions, his care team [from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York] wouldn’t do home visits. I had to care for him myself with a comfort box of drugs and virtual visits. One aide would still come for about four hours a day but that was it. We were on our own.”
COVID took loved ones from families all over the five boroughs. According to data from City Hall, as of Sept. 1, New York City had over 239,000 coronavirus cases with close to 24,000 resulting in deaths. On May 5, 952 New Yorkers alone died from the coronavirus. On April 8, 799 New Yorkers died.
The chaos, uncertainty and grief that dominated the city at the beginning of quarantine had backed up the schedules of funeral home owners producing a waitlist for grieving families. It took weeks for Hall to find one that would help her grieve properly.
Her father Wesley was cremated on May 8. Rountree was cremated over a week later.
Losing an aunt to COVID and a father to cancer were enough for Hall to take immediate action and ensure that her mother was safe.
Yvonne Hall resides in Rockaway Beach, a hot zone of COVID-19 infections. The 69-year-old breast cancer survivor is currently staying with Hall during the lockdown. She too struggled with the tragedy surrounding her.
“I’m doing well now,” Yvonne said. “I was very sad and upset because Nana became very sick and I couldn’t be there with her. I could hear in her voice how sick she was. I felt so helpless. I still cry when I think of how I miss her. I was happy to be with my daughter to help with the girls and comfort them when their mom wasn’t there. When they learned that their grandpa died, it was so upsetting for them. They lost two very special people in their lives within nine days of each other.”
Hall welcomed her mother’s help. When asked about the father of her kids, Hall talked about another loss: the loss of her marriage.
“Their dad and I divorced recently and live in different homes,” said Hall. “When I had to leave to take care of my dad, they stayed at my house with my mom. The co-parenting thing didn’t really work out for us.
“If my dad were well, he would have definitely helped as well,” Hall continued. “But unfortunately, he was transitioning.” The difficulties of handling the passing of two relatives within days of each other, getting tested for COVID-19, moving her mother into her home to protect her from a COVID hotbed, and dealing with a recent divorce all while preparing to homeschool her kids and working a full-time job would psychologically crush anyone else. Hall’s looking to make it work. Something that her mother admires up close.
“Tamika handled herself well during the pandemic,” said Yvonne. “I felt she became overwhelmed when her Dad started transitioning. During that time it was very hard for her because she had to be there for his final breath. She’s a daddy’s girl and that was very painful to watch him die.”
But no matter Hall’s difficulties, or any other parent’s, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza planned to start the 2020-’21 school year with a combination of in-school classes and remote ones. Their plan has angered some and confused many.
The city originally wanted to reopen schools on Sept. 10, but the city decided to push back reopening school buildings until Sept. 21.
De Blasio also touted many other adjustments in how things would be handled and promised improvements would be made to the HVAC systems and air conditioning to improve air circulation in the schools, but the announcement had fallen on deaf ears.
“The ventilation in that school is poor,” said Hall. “We have often had situations where there weren’t necessary things like soap in the bathrooms during a regular school year. Also, there are two schools in the building so they have to share space. Social distancing makes a tight situation even tighter and there is only one school nurse. How is she supposed to care for regular health issues and COVID issues? Nightmare.”
In her most recent weekly letter to parents, which could be found on The Neighborhood School’s website, Principal Dyanthe Spielberg said she met with the other principals and assistant principals in District 1 and they decided to call for schools to stay closed.
“With only two weeks before school begins, I do not feel comfortable recommending that school reopen in-person given the current condition of our school building and the guidelines we’ve been given as a school by the DoE and our local and state governments,” wrote Spielberg last week. “I cannot, with confidence, guarantee the safety of all of our students, staff, and families. This is very hard for me to say, but that’s the reality we face right now.”
The local teachers union has even considered striking. Before the recent agreement, the union planned to have a 3,200-member delegate assembly to vote on giving the union the authorization to strike. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the union wanted a school reopening plan that met the standards of independent medical experts.
“We can’t afford to send students and staff back into any buildings until we have done everything possible—including a rigorous virus testing program—to see that they are safe,” said Mulgrew in a statement. “The members of the UFT know that public employee strikes are illegal, but we are determined to do what is necessary to protect our students and the families of New York City.”
Meanwhile, officials at New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), with the help of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), recently sent a letter to New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker asking him to add mandatory face masks to the list of reopening guidelines.
“Unfortunately, as the beginning of the school year nears and districts continue working out their reopening plans with parents and teachers, we are seeing disparate mask policies that are not leaving parents or educators confident in the safety of their district’s plans,” the letter states. “In reviewing individual reopening plans with educators in the field, it’s clear that numerous plans do not go far enough in their mask mandates to ensure the safety of students and educators.”
Protection and safety are the major issues at hand when it comes to schools reopening. One can look no further than states like Florida where the government reopened schools fully with students attending classes like normal. In the first 15 days of classes, 9,000 kids were confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19. As of the end of August, there were 48,730 COVID cases among children in the state including more than 17,000 between the ages of 14 and 17 and almost 13,000 between the ages of 5 and 10. Despite the statistics, during a roundtable meeting with Florida State Gov. Ron DeSantis, President Donald Trump adviser Dr. Scott Atlas said people were being “hysterical” about school reopening.
Hysterical or not, this situation has resulted in parents becoming teachers while working full-time jobs. Hall, now tasked with providing a proper workspace for her daughters, said she’s scheduled job-related meetings for late morning and afternoon and will do most of her work at night. Hall said she wants to be more present for her kids in the mornings.
When public schools finished the 2019-’20 school year via remote learning, however, Hall had to pay out of pocket to make sure her children could learn their lessons.
“My biggest issue was when we first started. They gave me one laptop that I had to share with the three girls,” said Hall. “That was impossible and I ended up having to go and purchase two Chromebooks so that everyone had their own device. The struggle with using one was pretty ridiculous.”
Google Chromebooks go from as low as $200 to as high as $1,000.
“Second problem was having to homeschool them and balance work with giving them the assistance they need with school,” said Hall. “If I have to work for a full workday, their school day happens for most of that day. Kennedy has an IEP [Individualized Education Program] and receives Speech and OT [Occupational Therapy].”
Not many parents are as lucky as Hall is with her ability to spend money for the cause. According to a recent poll commissioned by The Education Trust-NY and conducted by Global Strategy Group, 39% of parents in New York State said they skipped meals or reduced the amount of meals they consume or reduced their child’s meals, which is up from 33% in June. The poll also found that 48% of low-income parents are concerned about access to meals and food for their child this fall, with 62% of parents in New York City alone sharing the same sentiments.
According to statistics from the New York City Department of Education, the school system is home to more than 1.1 million students. More than 40% are Hispanic and 25.5% are Black. Of those 1.1 million school kids, 72.8% are economically disadvantaged and it’s in more ways than one.
In the latest “State of Black America” report distributed by the National Urban League, only 19.7% of African Americans are able to work from home. Overrepresentation in low-wage work increases exposure to the coronavirus. The study also notes that Black and Latino workers are more likely to work jobs that don’t have health insurance (11.5% and 19% respectively) and are overrepresented among the poor in states that didn’t expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Nevertheless, de Blasio seemed ready to get the school year going. The mayor said that to date, 1,321 school buildings have been inspected, which is close to 88% of the buildings that need to be inspected. De Blasio said the inspections will last right up until school starts and that results will be published for public viewing when it’s done.
“So far, what we’re seeing is overwhelming, because of the hard work that’s been happening over the last three months, that schools are ready,” said de Blasio to reporters during a media briefing. “But we’ll be very clear if there’s any specific school with ongoing work that needs to be done and every individual classroom that has work that needs to be done.”
Hall said that she wants to be active in her children’s learning and despite having assignments that could be done independently, supervision is mandatory.
“Some parents want to plop their kids in front of a screen for as many hours as the school day lasts and it doesn’t work that way,” Hall said. She wants to actively be involved in her kids’ education, but said she won’t know what to teach until “I see what the lessons and schedules look like.”
“During the spring when all of this first happened, the teachers at The Neighborhood School were very good with their scheduling and planning,” Hall said. “Kiara will be moving to middle school so I have no idea what her schedule is going to look like…this is really a crazy way for her to begin. I wanted her to be in school but sadly, it isn’t going to happen.”
Hall also said The Tompkins Square Middle School Principal Sonhando Estwick and Parent Coordinator Shirley Lee-Wong have done a good job keeping parents updated weekly this summer via Google Hangouts and Zoom calls. She believes the meetings have given parents a space to talk and keep abreast of the latest information from the DOE.
But as for that IKEA trip, when asked if she was successful in finding the necessary materials, Hall said that everything was either sold out or out of stock. She had to go elsewhere to find what she needed.
“So I opted for Wayfair,” said Hall. “Aside from the two Chromebooks I purchased? A $100 box of school supplies and $451.94 from Wayfair. Public school ain’t cheap.”
But despite the difficulty of the balancing act, Hall’s mother had nothing but praise for her daughter.
“I know I was blessed because if I was home in Rockaway, I might have been sick with the COVID and that would’ve been very devastating for Tamika,” Yvonne said. “God is a truly awesome God and I’m thankful for God’s blessings.
“She had to work and help her three daughters with their lessons during homeschooling and it was truly a challenge,” continued Yvonne. “She made it through and I have to say that I’m so very proud of her.”
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