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Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to reopen in-person schooling for 190,000 students, and the head-spinning series of closings and openings that preceded it, risk eclipsing a striking fact: More than half of Gotham’s parents don’t want to send their kids to school and have instead opted for remote learning. What these parents do want, however, is better remote learning. I’m fortunate — because the charter schools my two children attend could serve as a model for other schools on how to do remote learning well.
This fall, my kids didn’t miss a single day of school due to school closures. Administrators were in communication with parents in July, telling us what to expect. At first, school was supposed to be hybrid, but when the city decided not to open buildings, we learned we’d be 100 percent remote to start. While it was disappointing for my kids not to be having at least some time on campus, I was amazed at how quickly and thoughtfully administrators had set up the remote program.
The daily routines were almost an exact mirror of on-campus schooling, from the length of the day to the full curriculum. As normal, students were expected to wear their uniforms; attendance was taken every morning; and parents were called if a student wasn’t present.
My daughter, who is in first grade, was thrilled to hear she would be learning about the Arctic Circle; the topic has been woven throughout her English, math and science classes — subjects in which she receives live instruction from all her teachers.
Unlike stories that have circulated about remote learning in district schools — little or no live instruction, pre-recorded videos, reading materials and online discussion boards — I have the comfort of knowing my children’s teachers are on the other end of the screen, teaching them and engaging them by asking questions and giving feedback.
Daily attendance averages 97 percent. In contrast with the unpredictable openings and closings of district schools over the course of this fall, and the lost learning days, I have enjoyed peace of mind from the continuity and stability of what my children experience. Instead of worrying about a new positive case causing a school closure, teachers are able to put all their focus and energy into making remote learning work for students.
Teachers have even found a way to do electives virtually. Kids are doing soccer drills and competing in virtual chess and debate tournaments with students from other schools in the charter network. The high school recently put on a virtual production of “Almost, Maine,” and student artists and dancers have the opportunity to participate in virtual performing-arts productions.
When the school day ends, there’s an option for some creative after-school programs. Some days, my kids are reading screenplays aloud, and others they’re learning about animals’ life cycles, inherited traits and behaviors that help ensure survival. Every few weeks, kids can take online “class trips” to performances like the Paper Bag Players and the Big Apple Circus.
Of course, the foundation for the success of this remote program is an equitable distribution of technology, and this was accomplished only because the schools took action last spring. From Day 1 of this school year, every student, even kindergarteners, had a personal laptop or tablet loaded with software like Kami and Jamboard to enhance collaboration with teachers.
All work, including math, writing assessments and homework, is fully digital. Teachers use Zoom breakout rooms to do small-group instruction for students who need extra help. The network distributed headphones, art supplies, physics kits, books and other materials to make learning more hands-on. And teachers received large-screen monitors to allow them to easily see all their students on screen at once.
We’d all like to snap our fingers and have things be back to normal — for our children to be back at school with their teachers and friends — but that’s just not an immediate option. What makes sense is to focus on reality, and right now, most parents are choosing remote learning for their children. Unfortunately, for the majority of students, the quality of remote learning is just not where it should be.
My family is lucky. I just wish our government leaders could apply what’s working in my kids’ schools for the rest of the city’s kids.
Edwin Cespedes’ children attend a Success Academy school.
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