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COVID rates are down, but some Bronx parents are not ready for in-person learning

A mother leans over her daughter as she works in a bedroom, with the bed and a dresser in the foreground.
A mom from Connecticut watches her daughter during a remote learning lesson. While remote learning hasn’t gone well for many children, a group of parents in the Bronx are advocating to keep the model as an option next year.
John Moore / Getty Images

For the first time in almost a decade, Bronx mom Lourdes Jibodh did not receive a letter from her son’s school saying that his promotion to the next grade level was in doubt.

Instead, her 17-year-old son Christian Camacho has been performing well academically while learning online during the pandemic. The junior at Antonia Pantoja Preparatory Academy struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, making it difficult for him to focus, especially in a crowded classroom with all kinds of distractions.

Remote learning proved to be a boon for Camacho, and his mom is not ready to give it up. Jibodh is part of a vocal group of parents in the Bronx who are infuriated at city leaders for failing to engage them in planning for the upcoming school year, which they say should include an option for remote learning.

“It’s not Christian’s ADHD that is failing him, it’s the inequity and large class sizes that exist in the schools,” said Jibodh, adding that her son’s grades have gone from barely passing to C’s, B’s and even some A’s.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has remained steadfast in his support of in-person learning over virtual learning, but when he announced last month that all students, teachers, and staff would return to in-person learning beginning Sept. 13, the move caught New York City families — the majority of whom were fully remote this year — by surprise. The announcement promised a nurse in every school along with an updated ventilation system in every classroom. It also emphasized that health and safety would be a top priority and that social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would still be followed.

Concerns over lack of parent input

In a detailed statement released this week, the coalition of parents, called Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group, expressed their opposition to reopening the schools without a remote option. Their statement rails against de Blasio and Chancellor Meisha Porter for making a decision impacting nearly 1 million public school students without consulting parents. It outlined specific concerns around the safety and health of school children and their families, including those who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated, and also pointed out that there are students with disabilities as well as general education students who thrived during remote learning.

“Sixty percent of our students were kept home by their parents, in spite of the fact that the Mayor then informed parents that the schools were safe and that parents wanted their children in schools for myriad reasons,” the statement reads. “Have the Mayor and the Chancellor spoken to these parents? Have the Mayor and the Chancellor addressed the concerns of these parents? Or do the Mayor and the Chancellor plan to browbeat and bully these parents into submission — since the decision to reopen schools without a remote option was made without the input of these parents?”

City officials never surveyed remote families on what they wanted for next year, and though de Blasio initially seemed to indicate there would be a remote option come fall, the logistics of having one may have been tricky to pull off. Principals did not want to run two modes of school again — for in-person and remote children — and the education department no longer wanted COVID-related medical accommodations that would allow teachers to continue working remotely. Moreover, though the city invested in getting hundreds of thousands of internet enabled devices for remote learning, the education department failed to focus on how to improve remote teaching. As New York City officials spent last summer focusing on physical logistics of re-opening classrooms, teachers were given little guidance on how to adapt to remote instruction.

Some students may have done well with remote learning, but a report from the RAND Corporation found that students learning remotely received less instructional time and were more likely to be absent than students attending in person.

Still, some parents say they prefer to keep their children remote and remain skeptical of how social distancing guidelines can be followed in buildings that are already overcrowded.

“I have been in the school. I know what it looks like with just a few students,” said Jibodh. “When they talk about keeping the CDC guidelines it concerns me a lot because how can you do that in a classroom of 32 students?”

Jibodh’s son’s school occupies the same building as five other city schools. Jibodh questions how distancing can be maintained in shared spaces such as the cafeteria and the gymnasium.

CDC guidelines stipulate that in elementary schools, students are to be three feet apart, but in middle and high schools, students are to be six feet apart when in “high transmission areas.” (New York City is no longer in that category, but middle and high schools are presently adhering to the six feet rule.) In addition, six feet of distance is to be maintained when masks can not be worn such as when eating, as well as in common areas such as lobbies and auditoriums.

There is little evidence that NYC schools have driven coronavirus outbreaks, and schools currently have less than a 1% positivity rate, according to data from the education department. Citywide, COVID positivity rates are at an all time low, with a seven-day average of .57%, according to data from the city’s health department. About 54% of New York City residents are at least partially vaccinated, although vaccination rates are lower in the Bronx, where 45% are partially vaccinated, data shows.

‘We feel disrespected’

The Bronx parents seem most frustrated that their voices are not being heard. They say the education department should have conducted robust surveys and data collection to determine how many parents wanted a remote option.

“We feel disrespected,”said Aixa Rodriguez, a teacher and a member of the Bronx Parent Advocacy Group.

Rodriguez, who teaches English as a Second Language in Manhattan, believes the complaints from Bronx parents are mirrored by low-income parents across in other boroughs. She wanted the education department to look at each district and determine how many students might need a remote option in the fall by conducting robust surveys and engaging with parents directly. Based on that data, they could come up with an innovative solution, perhaps creating one central hub that operates remote teaching.

Parents also say they want to see a contingency plan in the case that variants of COVID become more pervasive in the fall.

“How will they modify things to make sure all the needs are being met?” said Farah Despeignes, President of District 8’s Community Education Council spanning the southeast part of the Bronx and a leader of the parent advocacy group.

Bronx parents have requested that the mayor and chancellor — a former Bronx principal and executive superintendent — participate in a roundtable discussion with families to talk about their reopening concerns. According to group leaders, Porter has agreed to attend a roundtable meeting, though a date for the meeting has not been set, and the group is awaiting a response from the mayor’s office.

“Our decision to bring all students back to schools in September is grounded in the academic and social emotional needs of our children, as well as current health metrics, and as always we will closely follow guidance from health experts to keep our school communities safe,” said education department spokesperson Sarah Casasnovas. “We deeply value feedback from the Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group and all parents across the city, and we look forward to working together as we plan for a full return to in-person learning this fall.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Although de Blasio has championed in-person learning, he has said the city plans to lean on some form of remote learning for after school hours as part of next year’s “academic recovery plan.”

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