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How one Bronx student is weathering the pandemic and middle school online in NYC

Rilan Zahir, left, and his brother, Amden, are enrolled at Soundview Academy in the Bronx.
Rilan Zahir, left, and his brother, Amden, are enrolled at Soundview Academy in the Bronx.
Courtesy photo

Transitioning to middle school is often rough, with new responsibilities, social pressures, and higher academic stakes. Starting sixth grade entirely online, during the coronavirus pandemic, in a city that was once the world’s epicenter of that virus, further complicates matters.

For 11-year-old Rilan Zahir, it has meant meeting his teachers via video chat, not at an open house, and checking his email, not a whiteboard, for his latest assignments. By the end of his first day of classes, he had yet to meet any of his sixth grade classmates at Soundview Academy in the Bronx.

The school year finally kicked off in New York City on Monday. Students in pre-K and those with significant disabilities headed back to classrooms for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic triggered a lockdown six months ago. The rest of the city’s 1 million students, including Rilan, began learning online as school leaders and teachers continue to prepare for a staggered reopening.

On Monday, Rilan logged in to class from his iPad hoping to meet over video with his teachers. His mother set up a table in their library area, with a wooden bookcase serving as the backdrop for calls. But the only one-on-one interaction he had with any instructor was a note from his science teacher asking about Rilan’s older brother, Amden, who had been in her class last year.

Assignments began to ding in his inbox by 9 a.m., and he sneaked in an afternoon nap without his mother noticing. Overall, he was upbeat about the first day of middle school.

“I hope I get to have meetings tomorrow,” Rilan said. “I had a really good day in school today.”

Students who choose to head back to school buildings will do so in phases based on their grade level, with everyone returning by October. To account for social distancing, most students will alternate days learning in classrooms and days learning virtually.

But Rilan and his brother will be learning online only this year, an option that more New York City families have chosen over a chaotic summer. The city has pushed back its start date twice for in-person instruction, walked back its promises of live remote instruction, and been criticized for its handling of positive coronavirus cases that crept up when teachers returned to their buildings to prepare for the new year.

On Monday, the number of students choosing remote-only instruction climbed to 46%, a sign of sagging trust in the city’s frequently changing reopening plans.

In District 8, serving a diverse corner of the eastern Bronx, where Rilan’s school is located, almost half of the students have chosen remote-only learning. Most children enrolled in the district are Hispanic or Black, with 83% coming from low-income families — groups that have been disproportionately hard hit by the pandemic and its economic fallout.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio has forged ahead with reopening, the Community Education Council in District 8 has advocated for keeping buildings closed. The council, a body of parent volunteers who advise on local school decisions, includes Rilan and Amden’s mom, Farah Despeignes.

Along with other parent leaders, they are planning a march on Friday to protest the city’s reopening plans, and to demand more engaging online instruction, devices for everyone who needs one, and increased transparency around positive coronavirus cases in schools.

Council member Lourdes Jibodh said she lost faith that the education department could keep people safe, after the mayor initially resisted calls to shut down in the spring and a custodian at her son’s school died from the virus. Another member, Eduardo Hernandez, is skeptical that buildings will be kept as clean as promised, given what he sees as a long history of neglecting school building maintenance.

For Despeignes, remaining closed is simply a matter of life and death, with the virus still on the loose in a traumatized community.

“I believe in education,” said Despeignes, who was a high school teacher in the city for about 15 years and now is an adjunct humanities professor. “But I also know that staying alive is a whole lot more important.”

Already, there has been at least one positive case among staff members in the building where her sons’ school is located, according to the most recent data released Thursday by the education department. Despeignes said she has since been told of two more cases, and the building has been shuttered to investigate whether there is an outbreak, though the education department did not respond to a Chalkbeat request for confirmation. She said the inevitable closures that follow positive cases provide neither a stable learning environment for children, nor reliable child care for their families.

Not that remote school has gone smoothly.

The city has not put improving virtual learning front and center in its messaging as it sprints towards reopening buildings, and principals have contended with many last-minute changes. Staffing citywide has been a challenge for many schools, with the city scrambling to fill thousands of needed positions.

By the end of the first day back, Amden still doesn’t know who his English teacher will be. On Monday, the seventh-grader struggled to navigate an app to submit a science assignment that constantly erased his answers. His only other work was an essay for physical education, but nothing that required him to get active.

“That’s not how gym class is supposed to work,” said Amden, 12. “It didn’t go the way I thought it was going to go,” he said of his first day of classes.

Remote learning has sometimes been challenging for Rilan, too, who said he often felt overloaded with too many assignments last spring. It became overwhelming after the pandemic struck his own home as Rilan wrapped up the fifth grade.

A family member died in April of the virus, one of the lives lost in the peak of the crisis. It was the latest in a string of family tragedies suffered over the previous 18 months, during which his grandmother and uncle also died of other causes.

Rilan pulled away from his classwork. His mother says his elementary school called often, offering support and understanding over the phone. Despeignes decided the best thing to do was give Rilan time to grieve.

“The school was really good in terms of getting him back on track because they did worry about him. They did call. They tried to counsel him,” she said. “I didn’t try to push him too hard because, as a family, we suffered.”

“I was not trying to over-burden him because his mental health, at the end of the day, was more important,” she added. “You can always catch up on school work.”

Rilan has to be coaxed to talk about that time. His mother pressed him gently and told him it’s OK to share. With sixth grade now underway, he prefers to look ahead.

“I think I’m going to do better this year,” he says. “It was because of people dying that I fell into depression. But now that I feel a lot better, I think I will be on top of my work.”

Rilan isn’t optimistic when it comes to making new friends in his remote classrooms, noting: “It’s not something I want to try.”

He hopes the pandemic is over by next year, when he’ll be in seventh grade. Science is one of his favorite subjects, and his older brother told him seventh graders get to dissect frogs.

“Actually now that I think about it, I don’t want to dissect a frog,” he said. “I’m more into space science.”

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