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‘Zoom in a room’ makes a comeback at an East Harlem high school

An American flag hangs above the entrance of a red brick building with blue doors.
A former Catholic school serves as a satellite location for Park East High School. To make more room for social distancing, students rotate in groups between the main campus and the satellite location, where they log into livestreamed classes.
Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

There is no option for New York City students to learn remotely this year. But every day, students at Park East High School log into online classes.

There isn’t much room for social distancing at the East Harlem school, so students rotate attendance at the main campus, where they learn in-person with their teacher, and a satellite campus about five blocks away, where they learn via livestream, according to interviews with more than half a dozen students.

The school’s principal and PTA members did not respond to requests for comment. The education department said the school’s layout made social distancing a particular challenge, and school leaders worked with higher ups throughout the summer to find a workaround.

“Park East High School is a great example of a school community that worked together to find a creative solution that allows all of their students to return to safe in-person instruction this year,” said education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer.

For Park East, a cramped building where the classrooms are converted rehearsal studios, the addition of a satellite campus has made some extra room. But there are drawbacks. Some students said their teachers have forgotten to admit them into online classes, that it’s hard to hear what’s going on, and they miss the immediate feedback of being in front of a teacher.

“Obviously when you’re in the building it’s more engaging. Online it gets a little more boring,” said a junior, who, like the rest of the students interviewed for this story, asked not to be named.

The setup shows how complicated it has been to return to classrooms as the pandemic drags on. Last year, the need for social distancing resulted in hybrid schedules, floor decals spaced six feet apart at school entrances and in hallways, and constant reminders to keep a safe distance. With all of the city’s nearly 1 million students back in classrooms this year, many campuses are squeezed for space.

Styer said schools have responded in a variety of ways, including extending the day to allow for multiple sessions of students to attend, hiring additional teachers and aides, and using other school spaces for instruction. He did not say how many schools were offered additional sites, like Park East.

Park East’s website says students are split into three groups. Those who need additional support and services attend the main campus every day. Two other groups take turns receiving in-person instruction at the main campus, and learning remotely at the satellite campus on other days.

It’s a throwback to last year, when schools, particularly large high schools, resorted to “Zoom in a room.” For students who opted to return to school in person, many were disheartened to find that they sat in the same room all day and continued to receive lessons through a screen, as schools lacked the staff to teach online and in person simultaneously. It was also a way to limit exposure if someone tested positive for the coronavirus, by keeping students in small groups rather than traveling from class to class.

Fewer than 400 students are enrolled at Park East, but the campus is tight for space. Once a music school, the classrooms used to be rehearsal studios that, pre-COVID, weren’t even big enough to fit the allowed class sizes of 34 students, according to the review site InsideSchools. Instead, classes tend to be around 20 students.

The satellite location is the site of a former Catholic school. Students said they are assigned to classrooms by grade level. Some said the set up works against social distancing since the rooms are small and they are attending classes with different groups of peers each day.

The teachers union has resisted livestreaming lessons, and those who have tried say it’s a challenge. The experience at Park East highlights why. One student said they missed an entire class of AP instruction because the teacher forgot to admit students into the virtual room.

“We’re just waiting there and they already taught the lesson, and we have to go home and teach ourselves,” said a senior.

Other students said questions posed through the chat can go unanswered for most of the period, and that teachers often point to the board while lecturing, not realizing that students online can’t see what’s being referenced. Some said it would be helpful if teachers had microphones to make them easier to hear. Styer said the education department would “quickly provide” for any additional technology needs at the school, but that none have been reported.

“It’s stressful because we’re not getting the same amount of attention,” said another senior. “A lot of teachers are just forgetting there are students on Zoom.”

It shows the balancing act schools find themselves in this year.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that schools should follow social distancing — unless doing so would make it impossible to bring all students back for in-person instruction. Despite the more permissive rules, images of crowded hallways and the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus have sparked concern from some parents who were already upset about the lack of remote learning this year.

Experts have said that it’s important to take a layered approach to COVID mitigation. In New York City, masks are required in schools, 10% of unvaccinated students are tested weekly, and the education department has taken steps to improve ventilation.

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