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Aaaaaand just like that, middle school will be back up and running in New York City.
Earlier this week, the city announced a plan for reopening middle schools during the week starting Feb. 25. As The New York Times reports, 62,000 middle schoolers opted into in-person learning. About half of middle schools will be expected to get most kids in five days a week, but for capacity reasons, some will have to toggle between in-person and online learning over the course of a week. The same safety rules, which have forced many elementary schools to close temporarily due to coronavirus numbers, will apply.
So this is going to be complicated. Joy Resmovits talks to a Bronx middle school school assistant principal, to tell us what reopening will look like, why 80% of her students have been remote all year, and the impact of COVID-19’s disparities on the school reopening debate. (She asked to be quoted anonymously because she fears retaliation from the Department of Education.)
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The Unmuted will be taking next week off, but as always our inbox is open for questions/comments/concerns.
We also bring you a contribution from our favorite Bronx Mama, Nicole Perrino, who shares some details about a donation-based playspace in Brooklyn.
What reopening looks like for a middle school assistant principal
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Hey, Thanks for talking to The Unmuted! What should our readers know about you?
I have worked as a teacher and now administrator in New York City for over 15 years.
What has this school year been like for you? Are you working from home, or from your school?
Frazzling. Currently I am working from home, but I started out the year working in the building. Our school was closed for COVID cases this year in October. We have been remote since November and are going back in-person Feb. 24.
What does your day-to-day look like?
My remote day looks VERY DIFFERENT than my day to day in the building.
I wake up at 5, meditate and work out (on good days. On bad days, I stumble out of bed at 7 and start working in my bathrobe!)
6-7 I am answering emails and reading Twitter. 7-8:30 I start my projects and sometimes join teacher meetings.
The job of the administrator is actually easier in remote. It’s much harder for teachers, but for me, half my job is dealing with discipline and conflict, which happens less when we’re remote. And I have so little human interaction that I love getting into meets with kids!
I spend a lot of my time in meetings, many mandated by the city, which are the most frustrating. I don’t want to talk about state test scores! We are in a pandemic.
I try to get into 2-3 classrooms a day, but it’s impeded by meetings. On days that I *do* get into classrooms, I feel much better and connected.
I also spend a lot of my time talking to families. We connect them to services, and my teachers spend more of their own money than they should on essentials. The mutual aid organizations that have sprung up post-pandemic have been helpful.
I have my own kids, so the hours of 3:30-6:30 are for cooking, dinner and bedtime, and then after that I’m often answering emails again. I was up till 10 last night looking over my report cards. It’s a long day, but like many people working from home I enjoy the time to prep food, or to make a personal phone call if needed (impossible to do in the school building!) and getting the extra time with my kids.
How have your interactions with students changed over the course of the last year? How are the kids doing, learning, feeling?
I send them a very simple survey every couple of months. Most of them are doing ok.
The vast majority feel connected. My teachers are doing an amazing job staying on top of the social-emotional stuff. They have planned Movie Nights, theme days, and just generally are spending a lot of time on engagement and connection over instruction. Which is vital, because you can’t instruct in this setting (I would argue any setting, but certainly not in remote!) without kids feeling a personal connection.
What are some strategies your school has used to engage students during this hard time? Is there anything you wanted to try but haven’t been able to?
We have had a much better time with attendance and engagement than most places, and I think it’s because my school had a very strong advisory program in place pre-pandemic. I will say that the biggest glow of this school year is my sixth graders. I was super worried about what it would look like never meeting kids face to face, but they are actually doing the best out of everyone. I think it was to our advantage that the elementary schools didn’t figure out remote teaching last year, so they were really eager to get back into the “classroom” and have interactions with classmates and teachers.
We emphasize to EVERYONE–parents, teachers, kids–that our top priority is that they are feeling safe, happy, and protected. I don’t give a fig for state standards if my kids are suffering at home.
My biggest challenge: Kids who were hard to reach before the pandemic and really not doing much work or participating. I used to go to kids’ houses to bring them to school. Or kids who would stay after school to get work done. It’s not a huge number of kids, but it definitely keeps me up at night.
We hold assemblies for the entire grade monthly. I think those go very far in helping the school community coherent. We give them updates on what we know about things like the vaccine, buildings reopening, etc. Our MO this entire pandemic has been transparency.
During the summer when there was so much uncertainty about being in person or remote, we decided early on that we were going to have a bunch of kids choose all remote (I don’t know why this was such a shock to policy makers–we know our families and their concerns and rightly predicted most would choose remote. I don’t think we thought it was going to be as high as 80% though!) AND that COVID wasn’t going away and we would certainly have a second wave in NYC.
We decided to make a remote curriculum, and with social distancing and other hygiene rules in place, we would have kids in-person working remotely, from the building. That would take care of anyone having to quarantine, and for the inevitable closures. It was a really good choice, because it got my teachers up to speed on a lot of best practices for remote instruction, and it provided a clear framework from which they could work. You definitely lose something from in-person instruction, but we made the calculated risk that it would be worth it with the disruptions.
Have you been vaccinated? Have most of your teachers? How do you think vaccination should factor into the school reopening process?
I got my second shot today! Some of my staff has, but, like so much with this pandemic, it has largely fallen across race/age/education level lines. Because of systemic inequalities, the teachers are vaccinated at a far higher percentage than support staff and paraprofessionals.
Middle schools are expected to reopen soon. What was your first reaction when you heard the news?
Frustration. For several reasons.
One is, I have seen such little transparency. The chancellor looked us in the eye earlier this week (and has repeated several times this fall) to say the safest place in New York City is inside a school building. That’s clearly a lie. The safest place is your own home. Is it any wonder that so many families and teachers are scared? There have been lies, obscuring of facts, and disdain of people’s questions and fears all year. It has been a master class on how not to lead in a crisis.
But also, 80% of my kids are fully remote! And our “ventilation” system is the windows. In October, inside the classrooms measured 50 degrees. What do you think it will be like in February??? I have a feeling that very few kids will show up. Why come into the classroom, in the freezing cold, to wear a mask all day, when you can just log in in your pajamas and keep it moving? I know what my choice would be!
So I’m frustrated they couldn’t wait another month or so for the weather to turn, and I am frustrated that the city has put what seems like ZERO dollars and time into improving remote learning.
Tell me about your neighborhood. How are coronavirus numbers trending, and what has access to testing and the vaccine been like?
Poorest Congressional district in the country. Families are pretty much all “essential workers” (a term I hate because it’s been weaponized). Extremely high COVID positivity rates, and extremely low testing percentages. We had a bunch of kids out sick in the beginning of the year, and honestly parents didn’t get them COVID tested, because a) who has the time to take off work to get your kid tested and b) if you have a confirmed positive, then everyone else in the home is quarantined–you can lose your job. This is literally a matter of survival.
As numbers in the city exploded this winter, we had more kids get tested (and test positive). But I’m sure tons of cases are untested. The testing system is pretty good. But again testing doesn’t help much if you don’t have paid sick days and caregiver time.
What are you most excited about, when it comes to reopening?
I am excited to have interaction with people who aren’t my immediate family again. We have been taking distancing very seriously in my home, and right now my partner and I are privileged enough to be working from home, so I don’t see anyone else during the week.
I had to go into school a few times for various reasons, like proctoring the SHSAT (please don’t get me started on that inequitable mess!). It was soooo lovely to see my kids, some of whom have been remote all year! And seeing families outside on the sidewalk as their students wait to be COVID screened before school.
What are your biggest fears?
Everyone keeps talking about getting back to normal, but my biggest fear is that we WILL get back to “normal.” Which for my school community means a return to underfunding, a return to overworked staff trying to fulfill every need of students (housing, food, clothing, medical, therapy….), and all these people hollering about school buildings reopening back to ignoring us except when they need a scapegoat for all of society’s ills.
For my immediate future, I am worried about two things: 1. My teachers’ morale. 2. Childcare for my biological kids. Like many parents of little kids working out of the home, my child’s public school doesn’t offer five days a week of instruction. I wish the DOE had helped provide childcare for those of us who have to be in person every day.
What will it take to reopen at 20% capacity? Does that mean you only need 20% of your staff?
Ha! I wish! So it’s complicated, but there are lots of rules stymieing our scheduling. Mainly special education accommodation but also licensing. We have quite a few staff working remotely on medical accommodations, which is challenging, because you need to have the correct licenses in the correct classrooms. And then the screening questions (which I fully support!) make things complicated because on any given day I’ll have one or two staff members home quarantining or waiting for a COVID test because they were feeling a sniffle. I have had to cover a few classes, which is fine but it’s not great for contact tracing purposes!
Do you feel safe going back?
My calculus would be different if my loved one’s underlying condition was more severe or if there were more kids in the building — the building infrastructure is “SUS,” as the kids say. But with only 20% of students there on a given day, it feels safe.
I am thankful for my community. I can’t imagine working with kids or adults who were anti-mask or somehow not committed to the safety of everyone. Everyone’s been honest on screening questions and staying home when exposed or symptomatic.
What else do you want parents to know?
I wish parents knew and really thought about the racial and economic disparities in both the health and economic impacts of this pandemic.
Most people who want to open school buildings THINK they know what’s better for poorer families, but no one (and I include the national education media in this admonishment) ever asks those families what they want.
When my school building was closed, I called parents to let them know. And seriously not one single parent showed frustration or anger about the closure. Their response was to ask how the positive cases were doing and offering prayers. And even when we had a virtual Town Hall two weeks later before we reopened, they were just concerned about safety. And it’s largely because we are seeing two very different pandemics.
White parents in my social or social media circles have a very different reaction, which is to complain about stringent quarantining rules. So it’s no surprise that many mostly white, affluent parents who are spearheading the efforts to reopen school buildings are concerned about their kids’ social skills or mental health. But my families have seen the effects of COVID first hand. They live in multigen houses full of essential workers–people lost their jobs, got seriously sick and died.
For poorer families, a COVID diagnosis could mean lost wages, which in itself is catastrophic. Because of rampant structural racism, so many of my families also have underlying conditions. Add that to living in multigenerational households, or congregate housing, and it’s no wonder so many poor Black and brown families chose all-remote. People are using completely different calculations–you cannot compare them.
And it’s a zero sum game–resources put into reopening buildings means fewer resources into improving remote teaching. It’s 100% what I’ve seen in NYC–millions (billions?) put into PPE, staffing in-person learning, LOTS of hygiene theater, and nothing for remote learning (I still have lots of kids in shelters who have no wifi access–WUT).
Please don’t make my students your convenient excuse to send your own kids back into school buildings. Listen to my families. They know what is best for their own kids.
A space for play, so that moms can work — for just a donation
One month after Brooklyn-based entrepreneur Natalie Rios started Little Lola & Tots with her sister Jessenia in 2017, she got a firsthand lesson in the needs of working single moms: She unexpectedly separated from her husband. Now, after receiving support from her sister and the space’s community, she’s looking to pay it forward.
Support through tough times
Throughout the challenging time of Natalie’s divorce, Jessenia pushed her sister to sustain their newly opened cultural and educational playspace. “I know how difficult it is to juggle work while attempting to meet the demands of our kids,” she shared in a newsletter to her blog subscribers. The sisters helped each other, and now they want to help you.
What does this mean for you?
On Mondays and Wednesdays from 3-5 p.m., Lola & Tots lets moms use the playspace and connect to the space’s WiFi and actually get some work done. There’s no cost, just a suggested donation of $10.
What the playspace offers
Little Lola & Tots offers exploratory outdoor lessons to supplement remote learning. The goal is to cultivate artistic expression and creativity through such activities as storytelling, building with nature, and sensory exploration.
Health and safety standards are already in place at the playspace due to COVID-19 — so there’s limited capacity, which means you need to sign up for classes or playspace drop-ins in advance. You can register here.
Advice for fellow working moms
How can moms balance work during the pandemic? “Establishing certain boundaries with your children would be a good idea,” Natalie said. “I recently started using some fun timers so that my children know when it’s time for Mami to work and when it’s time for us to have one-on-one” time.
We also need to stop being so hard on ourselves.
“As moms we carry a lot of guilt and we beat ourselves up about things that sometimes don’t work out in the way that we expected it to,” she said. “It’s so important to instill some positive self-talk since we are our biggest critic and we have to ensure that we are our own biggest cheerleader instead.”
For more information about Little Lola & Tots, visit www.littlelolatots.com.
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