This spring, PENCIL is hosting virtual panel discussions as part of the prestigious Principal For A Day program. Last week, we hosted our first webinar where four leading New York City principals spoke to an audience of more than 100 corporate executives about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on public schools in the five boroughs.
The attendees got a chance to hear from the educators navigating the complex and ever-evolving education system. The event provided an insider perspective on the day in the life of a principal and how the shift to virtual learning has impacted schools, teachers, students, and their families.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from the panel discussion:
Teachers are working harder than ever
When the schools first closed, not one teacher knew how long the pandemic would last. Even after the mayor announced that New York City’s schools would remain shut for the rest of the academic year, the anxiety lingered.
Every day, educators around the city are coming up with creative ways to replicate a classroom setting through the four walls of their homes. They are harnessing new technologies, doubling as guidance counselors, and facilitating online discussions, all the while making sure that students remain engaged and present during school days.
As Karen Polsonetti, Principal at Manhattan Business Academy, pointed out: “Reaching out to families has become part of our teachers’ jobs. I have teachers getting messages from students at midnight.” Despite the extended hours of conversations, it’s difficult for students to cope with the sudden change.
“Some of our kids are really struggling. They are struggling to get on technology. They are struggling to be connected. They are struggling to not disappear,” Karen said.
“A lot of our kids keep commenting and saying I really miss it there. I didn’t know how much I liked school until I wasn’t there anymore.” Teachers too are sailing in the same boat. According to most of them, the hardest part of remote learning is not being able to have face-to-face interaction every day.
“As a principal, my job is to make sure that my students are performing academically, they’re being prepared for college, that they would be great citizens when they get out there, but it’s shifted,” Uche said.
“Now, my job is to make sure that we’re finding resources to support our children, support their families, to make sure that they’re simply good — that they’re okay.”
“The internet is a human right.”
Disparities were less visible in a school setting where students ate the same food and learned the same lessons. But the digital-divide has exposed a harsh truth: the internet is a luxury some families cannot afford. In the country’s educational history, there has never been a more significant push to build remote learning or to talk about digital equity.
“Digital Inclusion” or digital equity is a state in which all individuals have the required information technology capacity to fully participate in the society, democracy, and economy. But according to an analysis of census data, “An estimated 17% of U.S. students do not have access to computers at home, and 18% do not have home access to broadband internet.”
In New York City alone, public schools serve most of the 114,000 students living in shelters and unstable housing. At school, the learning opportunities are equal and controlled. But tech inequity among students is widening the opportunity gap.
Asya Johnson, Longwood Preparatory Academy has been thinking about internet equity since she started witnessing students turning in their assignment post midnight.
“22% of our scholars are in temporary housing. The WSJ wrote a story about one of our students living in a shelter, who was a valedictorian, and talked about how she would stay up until midnight to catch the best Wi-Fi,” Asya said.
“So what we didn’t know and most people didn’t know is that shelters restricted Wi-Fi access. She (the student) really just wanted to maintain her GPA and make her parents proud,” Asya added.
Although the city has moved swiftly to provide laptops and iPads to students who need them, internet accessibility is still an issue yet to be resolved.
Special-Ed students need more help
New York also has about 200,000 students with disabilities. Although service providers are stepping up to deliver more accessible technologies to these students, educators are worried that some of them may fall behind socially and academically.
At school, students with special needs get individualized attention from educators who have spent years training and understanding the students’ way of thinking, perceiving, and processing. But at home, even with the abundance of love and care, family members cannot learn to operate as special-ed teachers overnight.
These students are also missing out on occupational, speech, or physical therapy— that the school may have provided but is out of reach for parents from low-income households.
“We have a student who is really struggling. Their parent said they don’t know what to do because they can’t help them. Even we don’t even know what to do. We can only say push the start button but the student is like ‘I don’t know where the start button is.’ He is severely dyslexic and mother is also dyslexic,” said Asya.
Uche, now a principal, was also identified as dyslexic and an English Language Learner student, when he first enrolled in a public school in New York City after immigrating from Nigeria. “I know that I was that student, if people didn’t pay attention to me, I would have been lost,” he said.
“Every strategy that we are using to support them (special-ed students) is supporting all students. My mantra is this: we are all special-ed. We all have different needs and we all learn differently. And if we make sure we are doing the best and putting higher expectations for all our lowest performing students, all of a sudden, we are raising the bar for everyone.”
At PENCIL, we also believe that every student deserves an equal opportunity to succeed regardless of their zip code and parents’ incomes. Through our internships and school partnerships, we ensure that public school students build developmental relationships with business professionals they would otherwise not meet. As part of our COVID-19 response, we are regularly hosting webinars and online workshops to ensure that students are still connected to success despite the new challenges presented.