The New Virtual Reality    For NYC Students


This past Tuesday, March 23, promptly at 8:30 a.m., ninth-grader Felice Hernandez reported to “school,” not physically at her high school, Channel View School for Research, but virtually. Dressed in her pajamas, Hernandez had already logged in to Google Classroom, joining her class of 30 students online, all eager to start their school day. With NYC dubbed, “the epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic, this new remote learning is a new virtual reality for hundreds of thousands of students in the NYC public school system, private and parochial schools since the mayor shuttered all schools on Monday, March 16. The Rockaway Times reached out to local students, parents, teachers and school administrators to see how they were faring in this new mode of learning. And what we learned is while some are already adapting and even excelling in this new ab-normal, this is definitely a tale of two New Yorks—about the haves and the have nots.

According to Hernandez, this new way of learning has been “so far, so good.”

She said, “What I like about it is that I feel as students, we get more one-on-one instruction and attention from our teachers. Also, we work at our own pace, which gives us more time to learn and understand the assignments we are working on. Daily assignments have to be in by 12 midnight, which gives us a lot of time to finish our work.”

Her mom, Monique Hernandez agrees, but is well aware that may not be the same situation for many households. “This is something completely new for us, and I have to say the teachers prepared us well before the kickoff. The weekend prior, they made sure everyone had their log-in information and test drove Google Classroom. I’m just happy that my daughter is back on track with her schoolwork and so far, though it’s only day two, there haven’t been any glitches. Felice is pretty responsible and knows she has to get up on time, do her assignments, even if she’s still wearing her pajamas. Just like with being physically in school, you have to do your part, and she is well aware of that. However, I can imagine for younger children, this must be more of a challenge for both them and their parents. Also I wonder about those households in which the parents are working and not at home to supervise their children. For them it’s more of a matter of trusting that your child will be responsible,” she said.

Scholars’ Academy has been up and running their remote learning since last week, and their focus is not only making sure students keep up with their course work, but also continue socialization with their classmates and teachers. Through a live video Zoom chat, The RT got the opportunity to chat with Scholars’ Academy teachers, Kimberly Newman and Molly Tubridy, and students in various grades to get a birds-eye view of their remote learning experience.

Sixth-grader Maeve Grace said, “I feel that the teachers at Scholars’ prepared us well. The only thing I really miss is actually being in the school building and seeing my friends and teachers. However, the upside is that now we’re getting more one-on-one with the teachers, making it easier than being among 30 students sitting in a classroom, waiting to get the teacher’s attention. Now, if we have any questions, we just email the teacher and she emails us right back, and even sends a video on how to solve a problem.”

Eleventh-grade student, Melanie, agrees. “The online classes have been going great, especially since at Scholars,’ we’ve been using Google Classroom since the sixth grade, so we’re already used to the process; so now the challenge is getting used to working solely from home, which gives students more opportunity to complete their work because it’s on a time schedule.”

Though all elementary and intermediate NYS subject tests have been suspended for the school year for grades three through eight, Scholars’ students are still preparing for their Regents and Advanced Placement (A.P.) exams. Teacher Molly Tubridy said, “Though we’re still waiting for the state to confirm about the Regents, we’re planning and preparing anyway. The College Board just gave us notice that they’re still providing the A.P. exams, but just taking away some of the content.”

Scholars’ Interim Acting Principal Michele Smyth stressed that the school is not just concerned about students’ academic learning, but also the emotional support they need during these very distressing times.

“It’s a huge undertaking for NYC public schools to transition to remote learning within days, but Scholars’ was well-equipped to face this new challenge. We have been using Google Classroom and ‘flipped’ instruction for many years, so I knew that our teachers and students would be able to make a relatively seamless transition to teaching and learning from home. We have the academic component of the remote school fully up and running, and we are focusing on developing the social-emotional support for our students and families,” Smyth stated.

However, one school official who does speech language assessments for the D.O.E. paints a completely different picture for students in other schools.

“The D.O.E. Chancellor speaks a lot about equity and access, but I feel right now that both of these are being compromised with this new remote learning. Though I think he meant this from a cultural and socioeconomic perspective, equity is equity, and I believe that students who have medical issues and learning disabilities are getting shortchanged.

“There are parents who are not equipped with the skills necessary to help their children who attend special education District 75 schools. As a school administrator, I spent the week prior helping with the rollout, and I saw firsthand how fragmented the plan was for remote learning. Many parents don’t speak English, which is another barrier for them to help their children navigate Google Classroom. In my school, our principal was told to deplete our inventory of laptops, including those that belong to teachers. We had 200 laptops to give out, meanwhile the school has an enrollment of 600. Just like some people say, there are two Americas, there is also two New Yorks—you have students in good schools like Scholars’ and then you have other students at schools not as well equipped,” she said.

Former Scholars’ Academy Principal Brian O’Connell, now Headmaster at Lawrence Woodmere Academy (LWA), sees students’ remote online learning experience as a new opportunity to transform the future of academic learning. “This new approach to learning has me rethinking how we can redefine teaching and learning moving forward, and not necessarily just be a brick-and-mortar school. Weeks before the schools were officially closed, I already started planning and preparing to launch our online platform. With this pandemic, we knew this was going to happen, and our students are already in week two of remote learning, and both them and their parents are beyond relieved and pleased. Moving forward, the challenge is going to be—Are we going to keep the same old, traditional model of schooling or are we going to do something bold, creative and inspiring from what we’ve learned from this process?” O’Connell said.

LWA is planning to launch a program, where they could share their resources and mode of learning with other school districts. More info to come in next week’s Rockaway Times.

By Kami-Leigh Agard