Frustration. Pride. Restlessness. Fatigue. A glimpse into the remote learning of six New York City third graders reveals all of these emotions and more.
Nearly a year after the pandemic changed learning for the city’s roughly 960,000 public school students, Chalkbeat took a look at a day in the lives of 8- and 9-year-olds from all five boroughs to compare how they are weathering online school alongside their families. What we found is that remote learning — whether it’s full-time, a few days a week, or intermittent during building shutdowns — can be draining and disheartening. But there can be improvement, moments of connection, and hope.
Third graders occupy a gray area when it comes to managing remote learning independently. While many can navigate devices more easily than those in younger grades, others have some difficulty, and reading can still pose significant barriers.
As a result, these students’ days are largely intertwined with their caregivers — in these six cases, their mothers. These moms spend hours supporting and worrying about their children, grappling with how hands on they can or should be, while perhaps juggling other children and, in several cases, their own jobs.
One mom, toddler in tow, refuses to leave her third grader’s side, worried he won’t complete his assignments otherwise, while another, a doctor, leaves her son to work independently in her clinic while she sees patients. One mother thought her son’s reading improved after practicing more with him at home. Another lamented the lack of science and social studies at her daughter’s school. Many fret over their children’s lost time to play with friends.
Like 70% of students citywide, three of the third graders Chalkbeat talked with opted to learn exclusively online. Two of these families decided in-person learning was too risky after seeing so much coronavirus-related losses in their hard-hit neighborhoods. The other, a single, working mom, didn’t want to labor over the child care puzzle created by the city’s blended schedule: On top of the in-person and remote learning schedule, many schools can — and do — close without warning when there are multiple reported coronavirus cases among students or staff. The other families are taking as much in-person learning as they can get, but some weeks, they are learning mostly from home.
Often third grade is the last year that teachers focus on literacy fundamentals like phonics, so when those gaps remain after third grade, children might fall further behind. A larger share of this year’s crop of third graders might have more profound lags, given last year’s abrupt building closures, forcing schools to adapt to online learning while also confronting a public health crisis.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised that schools will “fully” reopen next year to families who want to be back in buildings, and he’s pledged that the city will focus on catching up kids and addressing mental health needs. But he’s provided no specific plan — and the possibility of some hybrid schooling next year looms. Meanwhile, these families of third graders will continue trying to make the rest of this year work as best they can. They’ll weather the uncertainty of closures and illness. They’ll grit their way through the monotony of days shaped by work and screens. But they’ll also search for progress and joy, even if it’s just in a Zoom breakout room or living room physical education class.
Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan
Nancy King and her son arrived early to the office on Tuesday, stopping on the way for buns, tea, and fresh soy milk at a nearby Chinatown bakery.
King is an ear, nose, and throat doctor who started her own practice as the pandemic raged. She is also a single mother. Drew is in third grade at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and when the school reopened for in-person instruction a few days a week, King quickly realized the unpredictable schedule and frequent shutdowns due to positive coronavirus cases would be impossible to juggle on her own. So Drew comes with her to the office every weekday and logs into class from a back office.
“As a working parent running my own business, I don’t have the bandwidth to be keeping track of all those details. So for me, staying remote is easier,” she said.
Drew learns alone for stretches at a time, toggling between video streams on his iPad and assignments he types on a laptop. King checks in on him in between patients who, on any given day, might come to her with head or neck cancer, hearing loss, or allergies.
By 9 a.m., King was seeing patients, and Drew was in his morning meeting. Around 10:15, he ran to the hallway to get his mother’s attention. He has become good at listening to the open and shut of exam room doors, taking advantage of the fleeting windows of time when his mom is hustling between appointments.
“He had spilled all of his fresh soy milk,” King explained. “It was all over the floor, and he attempted to fix it by taking out 10,000 tissues and covering the entire floor.”
She grabbed a mop. He continued his reading class.
Around 11:15, Drew needed help again, this time, with multiplying four-digit numbers. King spent less than 10 minutes on an impromptu lesson. “I showed him the way I was taught in school — so maybe it’s not the right way,” she said.
They keep an elaborate system of timers and alarm clocks that remind Drew when to log into his different classes, and a few minutes later, it was time for music. He practiced the recorder in an old sound booth that drowns out the noise. On this day, King caught glimpses of him dancing in the glass-paneled space in between appointments.
At 1 p.m., King breaks for lunch with Drew. The two ate savory soup noodles while Drew’s teacher read a book out loud. His class has lunch earlier in the day, but King is always with patients at that time. She’s not sure what he does in the 45 minutes that his classmates are eating, but she instructs him to keep the Zoom link open so that it automatically flickers back on when the class reconvenes.
Technology can pose a challenge. Sometimes meeting links are missing a digit or two. One time, the battery on Drew’s laptop died, and he didn’t know the password to log back in. He called his mom about a dozen times, but she was performing surgery.
“Because I was operating I couldn’t answer the phone, so I think he missed almost the entire day of school,” King said.
By 2 p.m., Drew’s school day is done. A babysitter comes to pick him up every afternoon for an outdoor playdate. Before they leave, he insists on multiple hugs. “He always wants one more,” King said.
King is home by 6 or 7 p.m., when she’ll make a quick dinner and go over Drew’s work for the day. In normal times, Drew’s school didn’t give homework and it was hard to know how, or what, he was learning. Now, despite all the juggling remote learning requires, King says she feels more plugged into his school than ever before.
Washington Heights, Manhattan
Jariel could barely use a keyboard when his Washington Heights elementary school was forced to pivot to virtual learning last spring. His mom spent almost all day, every day by his side, helping him take pictures of assignments or typing up the answers for him.
“Typing for me is hard,” 8-year-old Jariel explained. “I will get mixed up with the letters.”
That’s partly why Jariel urged his mother to let him return to his classroom when his school, P.S. 8, began offering in-person instruction in September. At first, he learned in person a couple days a week, but then his schedule changed to every weekday. This month, however, Jariel was learning virtually again because coronavirus cases in the school community forced a temporary shutdown.
A lot has changed since last March. Jariel has become a more proficient typer, allowing his mom more time to do her own work. She is a special education aide at a District 75 school for students with complex disabilities, a job that requires her to be in-person a couple days each week. On the days she reports to her school building, Jariel’s grandparents watch over him, though he sometimes runs next door to his aunt’s apartment if he needs technical help.
“This year, he’s getting used to it, he’s much better,” said Yanelsy Aguavivas, Jariel’s mother.
On a recent morning, he logged into class from his living room, while his mom, still within earshot, launched into schoolwork of her own for a bachelor’s program in psychology. Jariel’s father is a truck driver and is largely away during the day.
After a brief morning meeting, Jariel’s gym teacher joined the videoconference, leading the 19-student class through jumping jacks and sit-ups, with breaks in between exercises to make a “Lego man” drawing. Jariel prefers virtual gym class because even when they’re at school, they must stay in their classroom and exercise near their desks — with students occasionally banging into them.
Then it was time for reading class. His teacher cued up a pre-recorded “read aloud” about a 10-year-old girl’s friendship with her dog, followed by a mini-lesson about different story elements — characters, setting, problem, and resolution. She asked the students to apply these elements to a separate story, pairing them off into small breakout rooms to discuss.
Jariel enjoys reading, particularly books about reptiles, though he also can struggle with it. Jariel, who was born in the United States but is an English language learner, is part of a class that includes students with a range of abilities and is staffed by two teachers, which means that he often has the chance to receive extra help, including in smaller groups.
By 10:45, Jariel was making revisions to a persuasive speech he wrote about world hunger and why it’s important to donate to food banks. His mom checked on him and helped correct a few mistakes, including a missing letter “h” in the word “hunger.”
At lunchtime, Jariel noshed on platanos con salami (plantains and salami) with his mom, who also has a break from work. Though his school schedule encourages students to “get up and move!” during lunch, on this day, Jariel opted for video games.
After lunch, it was time for math, and Jariel switched to the kitchen table, which offers more space to work on problems using a white board the school sent home. Much of the class is devoted to a multiplication test — with students encouraged to keep their cameras on to discourage parents from helping. Jariel scored a 74.
Jariel was in good spirits at the end of the school day and said he isn’t fazed by all the screen time. But he can’t help but hope to return to school in person when it reopens.
“When you’re in person school you get to see your friends more,” Jariel said. “It’s not online like a video chat.”
Alhia Familia has spent her third grade year learning from a tablet propped on a dresser in her bedroom, a folding chair pulled so close that her knees press against the wooden drawers. Her sister logs into fourth grade from her own bedroom in another corner of the apartment, while her mother, Priscila Familia, tries to keep the youngest, an “earthquake” of a 3-year-old, out of the way.
The pandemic has taken its toll on Alhia’s Corona, Queens, community as well as her family. Her paternal grandfather died of the coronavirus in March. Familia had earned her pay as his caretaker. Since his passing, the girls have stayed home from P.S. 330, just four blocks away, and Familia has given up working in order to care for them. They make do on her husband’s salary as a parking garage attendant.
“She’s crazy about not being in school because she misses her teachers. She misses her friends,” Familia said in Spanish, calling Alhia “a very social girl.”
But the way her mother sees it, there is no other choice “for her health; for our safety.”
Alhia’s day starts with a tall glass of milk before her 8:30 a.m. class. Her teacher will be live on screen for most of the day, for which Familia is grateful. With the immediate feedback of the teacher, “that’s when they do the best work,” she said of her daughters.
Still, when it comes to remote learning, “I can’t say it’s 100% good,” Familia said. About half the day is spent on reading and writing, the other half on math. There has been some P.E. and music sprinkled in. But no science. No social studies.
“They’re getting the basics,” Familia said. “There are a lot of subjects that they’re not teaching.”
Familia’s first language is Spanish, so she will use her phone to translate instructions, or send a message to the teacher using a translation program offered by the school.
The days feel like a blur of meals to be made, passwords to manage, and technical problems to troubleshoot. “She needs help with so much,” Familia said.
Alhia has been with her current teacher since October, after schedules were reshuffled to make the third grade online classes smaller and more manageable. About 35% of the school is remote, according to the school’s assistant principal.
With all hands on deck staffing classrooms, Alhia, who is still learning English, went the first few months of the school year without the extra instruction she is supposed to get. She only started receiving that support, about 90 minutes a week of co-teaching or small group instruction with a trained teacher, in the last two months.
Familia is amazed at how technologically savvy her daughters have become, skills that she thinks will serve them well moving forward. But she worries about Alhia not seeing her friends, and allows her to call them on the phone everyday as soon as she’s done with her school work. She’s also concerned her daughters aren’t getting enough reading material and wished they had more access to online books. She wonders how they’ll make up lost instruction in the subjects they’re not learning this year.
“They are falling behind in some things, but advancing in others,” she said.
Tylib and a small group of classmates in his third grade gifted and talented class at Brownsville’s Brooklyn Landmark Elementary School spent a recent afternoon in an online breakout room designing their own restaurant for a “food war” contest.
They debated every last detail of “Jack’s Chinese Place,” from the placement of the kitchen and bathroom to the prices of the egg rolls, custard tarts, and “dragon bread” they planned to sell.
“We looked at a menu of a real restaurant and used some of the same food, but not the prices,” Tylib said.
Tylib works in the living room, while his mom Michelle Elcock remains in the bedroom next door, listening in. A single mom and parent leader in the school community, Elcock is able to remain home with her son since she is not working due to a disability. She beams with pride at the work her son is doing in his all-remote class. She’s especially proud that he is reading at a fourth-grade level, and that he doesn’t need much help from her throughout the day, except sometimes with writing.
Tylib, who turned 9 in January, told his mom: “I’m a big boy now.”
Said his mom, “He’s now very independent. He doesn’t need me. He’s very clear on what he needs to do.”
Tylib’s day starts at 8:30 a.m., when he fills out his attendance form and reads independently. Then at 9 a.m., he logs onto his Google Classroom and joins his teacher. She is in the school simultaneously teaching the roughly five students with her in the classroom and the dozen fully remote children, breaking them up into small groups throughout the day, and setting them up with assignments when she’s not doing live lessons.
Elcock and other parents lobbied to have the G&T teacher live-stream when the building reopened so that accelerated class could stay intact.
At the start of the year, Tylib was in a different class led by a fully remote teacher, who had more than 30 children that included his G&T peers, as well as students with disabilities and general education students. It wasn’t going well, according to Elcock.
When all schools across the city closed in November because of rising coronavirus rates, Tylib’s G&T teacher went remote, and he moved into her class. After his mom realized how far ahead the gifted class was, Elcock spoke up.
“The kids were lost. I didn’t realize it until November,” Elcock said. “He’s on track now.”
The family has faced some glitches with the internet-enabled iPad the education department loaned them. They can’t access YouTube videos, which are sometimes part of their assignments. They can’t get into the school’s weekly town hall Zoom meetings. (The teacher does a workaround, sharing her screen in Google Hangouts.)
When Elcock told her school-loving, social butterfly son that he wouldn’t be attending in-person classes this year, he cried. But Elcock, who lost members of her church to COVID-19 as well as dozens of other people in her community, didn’t feel like it was safe to send him back.
“Don’t get me wrong, before the pandemic I trusted the school with my child, but with corona, you can’t protect yourself, how can you protect my child?” she said.
Tylib does miss seeing his friends in person, but he’s been pleasantly surprised by how often he gets to be with them online.
“I’m still having fun with my friends,” he said.
Eltingville, Staten Island
Nearly a year in, Tristan is over remote learning.
“I hate it,” he said. “It’s annoying.”
Tristan starts his remote days with an 8:30 a.m. meeting, sitting next to his mother in the kitchen of their Staten Island home, while his 3-year-sister vies for their attention. He typically keeps on his pajama bottoms, but wears a button-down shirt for his Zoom meetings.
“If he wasn’t in the same room with me, he wouldn’t be doing anything,” Coryn said of 9-year-old Tristan. “For us, it would be better off to not have live meetings. My son is like, ‘This is boring. Do I have to sit listening to this?’”
It doesn’t help matters that he believes his school won’t fail him no matter how he performs.
His mom is despondent: “I feel like he’s lost the love of learning, which really saddens me.”
Tristan attends P.S 42, on the South Shore, on a hybrid schedule, splitting his week between on-campus and distance learning, though coronavirus cases have at times forced an all-remote schedule, including just before the mid-winter recess.
There’s little consistency. On days when his entire school is remote, Tristan’s classroom teacher spends two hours online with the class. On his remote days when he’s in hybrid mode, he has a different teacher, who is with the online students a total of 80 minutes. He was just assigned a new remote teacher, the third one this year.
Though Tristan has been breezing through his math assignments on the game-like platform his school uses, he struggles with reading and writing.
For the 15-minute science lesson on a recent Wednesday, he had a writing assignment about how plants adapt to their environment.
“He wrote two sentences, and then threw his pencil and yelled, ‘I’m done,’” Coryn recounted. “I said, ‘How about you tell me the answers in a complete sentence, and I will write it on the computer. That’s a sacrifice I was willing to do. So he still does the assignment. He still did the reading, still answered in complete sentences. I feel like we need to adapt.”
Tristan moves with her into the dining room on the days she starts her own remote job at 11 a.m., processing work orders and cost estimates for a maintenance company. Other days, she starts at 2 p.m., after Tristan’s school day is over. His dad works for a highway authority and is out of the house for half the month. His 15-year-old stepsister is fully remote, as high schools remain closed. When things get too loud, the sophomore goes to a work space on the second floor of their house.
Coryn recently enrolled Tristan in the city’s free child care program for his remote days, but she’s worried he won’t complete his work there.
Tristan’s school is “going above and beyond” trying to engage him, Coryn said. His second grade teacher invited Tristan to share a project with her current students. The parent coordinator has called to encourage him.
His mom is trying to pick her battles. She is striving to dole out more rewards than punishment; completing his work will net him more time on Fortnite or Roblox, candy or ice cream, or longer outdoor time.
Still, the rewards don’t always do the trick. He didn’t want to log on to his Wednesday art class. Coryn let it slide since it’s not a “requirement,” she said.
Tristan spent that time playing with his little sister instead.
On the last day before mid-winter recess, Marlene Peralta received a phone call from her third grade son Frankie’s teacher with some unusual news: Frankie had successfully encouraged his teacher to use breakout rooms for small group discussions.
His teacher was worried the children wouldn’t discuss school work in their virtual groups, but from what she could tell afterwards, they had indeed focused on their writing assignments.
“She was so excited,” Peralta said. “She was like, ‘I have to tell you, your son pushed us forward.’”
It was a sign of how far Frankie has come with remote learning. For many months he struggled to focus or navigate the technology, asking his mother for help and so often it was hard for Peralta, a single mother, to focus on her job as a media relations manager.
“I felt like I was spending more time trying to figure out Google Classroom than doing my own job,” Peralta, who works from home, said.
Frankie also missed seeing his friends and leaving the house, and she feared it was taking an emotional toll.
That’s why they opted for hybrid learning in the fall at P.S. 7 in Kingsbridge. In January, when elementary schools reopened, Frankie was offered in-school instruction five days a week.
Even so, remote learning continues to be part of their lives. Frankie’s campus has closed twice since January because of positive coronavirus cases at the school, including for the week of Feb. 8, before mid-winter recess. But remote instruction has improved, Peralta said. At the start of the school year, Frankie had about 15 minutes of live instruction at a time, followed by assignments that students were expected to complete on their own. (They often weren’t completed.)
By the end of October, around the first parent-teacher conferences, the teacher increased live instruction significantly, appearing on camera for about 90% of the day. More recently, she began incorporating games and trivia into lessons.
At 10 a.m. Frankie’s class started their writing lesson. This was when they separated into virtual breakout rooms.
In the past, it was hard for Frankie to focus for more than 15 minutes at a time, Peralta said. Now, he’s more engaged. She recently heard her son dancing in his room to a song that his teacher was using as part of a lesson.
“He’s one of those that if he’s not participating or he’s not getting the attention, he gets bored,” Peralta said.
Frankie, who struggled with math at the beginning of the school year, seems to have a better grasp on the subject now. He got a 67% on the first math test he took this year, an 82% on the second one and a 92% on the one he took earlier this month. Peralta believes it’s because he’s going to school in-person and is “engaged more when he’s in the classroom with his teacher and his classmates.”
It seemed that some Zoom fatigue was creeping in toward the end of the day. During his last lesson, which was a read-aloud, Peralta found Frankie laying down in his bed as he followed along.
Remote learning has become more interactive for Frankie, but Peralta thinks he’s mostly happy to be back in a real classroom, even if it means he has to learn from home sometimes.
“Before it was like, ‘Ah, I don’t wanna do classwork,’ or ‘Ah, I wish I had vacation.’ He was always lamenting having to do classwork,” Peralta said, “whereas now he’s like, ‘Let’s go.’”
This story was written and reported by Christina Veiga, Alex Zimmerman, Reema Amin and Amy Zimmer.