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How Remote Learning Is Going In Low-Tech (Or No-Tech) Homes

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Anna Louisa, 18, receives her school laptop for home study at the Lower East Side Preparatory School as coronavirus restrictions shuttered classrooms throughout the city, John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

As the first week of remote learning for New York City public schools comes to a close, families and educators reported a wide range of experiences: some shared screenshots of adorable video-conference storytimes and pictures of super-parent schedules on social media while many others spent their first week of “online learning” without an internet-enabled device at home.

Earlier this week, the New York City Department of Education estimated there were 300,000 students, or almost one-third of the public-school population, without a home device that connects to the internet. A DOE spokesperson says it’s working to close that gap by purchasing LTE-enabled iPads; the goal was to distribute the first batch of 25,000 iPads by the end of this week, prioritizing students in temporary housing, with another 50,000 devices to be delivered every week after. In the interim, the spokesperson said the DOE was providing paper packets for families who need them.

WNYC/Gothamist are pairing up with Chalkbeat to report on this moment in education. We heard from parents, teachers, and students this week, and asked them what devices they have and what tools they’re still lacking to successfully connect to online learning materials.

These perspectives have been shared with permission; the written accounts below are based on survey results and follow-up interviews and have been edited for length and clarity.

Students

"I was home-schooled until the end of 8th grade, so this kinda feels like I’ve just switched back to home-schooling in a way. Right now we have one laptop that we’re all sharing: me, my two younger siblings who are homeschooled, and my mom. My schoolwork takes priority but sometimes my brother and sister need the computer too. We have a bunch of old computers in the basement, so maybe I could try putting an entire new computer together. It’s just a matter of finding everything I need. The positive thing is I can manage my time, and I actually have more downtime to do things I enjoy like playing Minecraft. I talk to my friends through Instagram. I talk to my girlfriend everyday. But I miss them, you know? Talking online is not the same as seeing them in person."

- Felix Dejean-Reid, a freshman at the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture who lives in Queens Village

"Right now I’m using my phone. But yesterday, I went on my school’s website and saw the number to call to ask for a computer. So I called and they said they might find a computer for me, maybe by Monday but maybe in a few weeks. It’s working out right now but every time I go to my ELA (English Language Arts) assignments on my phone it glitches, it doesn’t want to go there. I don’t like being stuck in the house that much. I miss going up to my friends, giving them hugs. Going to my favorite teachers, talking to them. I miss going to step and basketball."

-An anonymous middle school student in the Bronx

Listen to Shumita Basu's report on WNYC:

"I have an iPad in the house and a cell phone. If it’s a long assignment that requires typing I’ll use the iPad, but if it’s something shorter I’ll just use my phone. I find it more overwhelming than being present in school; when you’re at home you're getting hit with classwork and homework all at once. Also my little brother (fourth grade) sometimes needs my help but my little sister (seventh grade) is more independent. I got an athletic scholarship to a junior college in Kansas to play basketball, so I’m also thinking about my graduation requirements. That’s heavy on my mind as well. It feels like I can’t really celebrate my graduation the way I want to."

-Niyamisa Trail, a senior at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies who lives in Canarsie

Parents

"I’m a healthcare worker and only parent. My three-year-old and I are staying with my mother. I’m still going in to work. Her school has done a really lovely job, but it’s also easier with three-year-olds because the expectations are pretty low. There’s no actual classroom learning that they’re participating in in real-time. It’s all on one app on my phone, which comes to work with me, so I do the activities with my daughter when I get home. I don’t know what it would be like if I had a first-grader who had to participate in something more structured and who needed to sit with my cell phone all day."

-Rachel Kleinbart, Washington Heights

"We’ve got four kids in the house: a freshman in high school, a sixth grader, a first grader, and a two year old. They’re all trying to use the wifi. Sometimes it doesn’t work. The schools gave us two laptops, but one of them won’t let me log on so we can’t use it. It’s asking for an email address that we don’t have. And there’s no one you can talk to anymore at the school. So my brother let us borrow a laptop from him. We’re making it work but it’s frustrating and a little overwhelming."

-Yarelyn Lopez, Borough Park 

"I’m in a domestic violence shelter with my three kids. The oldest one is 5 years old, and she goes to kindergarten at a non-DOE school using HRA subsidies that the city provides. It’s a great school but it means she doesn’t qualify for one of the internet-enabled tablets from the DOE, and we don’t have wifi where we live. The school is still open, but I haven’t sent her all week so I have to go pick up a packet for her tomorrow. I don’t want her to get left behind. It’s just aggravating. She’s so young. I want her to be reading and writing and ready for first grade. I don’t want her to get labeled as a slow learner next year. She wants to be a vet and I want to help her get there, but I can’t if I don’t have basic internet. I’m also a student in a nursing program, and I’m unable to do my schoolwork too because the campus is closed and so are the libraries. Internet is a necessity in today’s society, and I don’t have it because, what, HRA and DHS feels like it’s not important for people in temporary housing to have internet? That’s crap."

-A parent who asked to remain anonymous

Teachers

"I teach in a large, traditional high school in South Brooklyn. We pull in kids from all over the city; our student body is almost exclusively made up of immigrants and children of immigrants. The biggest challenge my colleagues and I are facing is many kids don’t have laptops, tablets, or wifi at home, so they’re using their data on their cell phones. I’m personally worried about the potential cost because a lot of them aren’t in stable financial situations. 

"Our school had about 60 laptops to pass out last week. They’re old and don’t really work well; they’re the same model I used in high school ten years ago. Some of my kids wanted them for remote learning, so I collected their student ID numbers and gave them to the school. But when my students found out they needed to have a parent or guardian with a valid ID to pick them up, a lot of them couldn’t because either their family members were working or don’t have ID. Most of my students are not documented, so whenever something like that happens our antennas go up and the kids will most likely not take advantage of the opportunity."

-A teacher who asked to remain anonymous

"I’m at a Title 1 school, which means at least 60% of our students are at or below poverty level. The young people at my school tend to not have a laptop at home, and even if they do they’re using a cell phone for class materials. This is a group of students who generally don’t have strong attendance. I had four students in my class on Zoom this morning, which frankly I was kinda impressed with but many of them were saying they wish they were back in school which is ironic.

"Our school has a pretty tech-savvy staff, but that also means that a lot of teachers are using different platforms. So students have to read each email from a teacher, click a link, download an app on their phone… it’s not all streamlined through Google Classroom, and I think that’s overwhelming for some of them. I worry about them for the tech reasons, for the social-emotional reasons, and just the overload. It’s a lot to handle on a small phone screen."

-27-year NYC public school teacher at a transfer school in Manhattan that serves students outside of the four-year graduation plan

How has your first week of remote learning been? Do you have what you need to make this a success? Students, teachers, and guardians: please take our survey to help WNYC/Gothamist and Chalkbeat report on this moment in education in New York City.

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