covid diary

How Do You Get Laptops to 1.1 Million Public-School Students?

Photo: Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Until recently, you could find public-elementary-school principal Bradley Goodman on any given weekday morning in the sun-filled recess yard at the East Village Community School in Manhattan, greeting arriving families and students, and overseeing a raucous, screaming, and generally joyous throng of kids kicking soccer balls, swinging from monkey bars, and chasing each other in circles. Like the rest of the city’s public-school teachers and administrators, Goodman didn’t know when he said good-bye to his students on March 13 that it would be the last time he’d see them for the foreseeable future. By the end of that weekend, the city’s schools would be indefinitely shuttered due to the coronavirus. Nor did he realize that some of his fellow colleagues, including, he believes, himself, had already been infected. Since then, Goodman, when not bedridden, has been navigating the abrupt transition to a still vaguely defined “remote-learning platform” and wondering how exactly you re-create the intensely social experience that is elementary school without the possibility of a group hug.

During the last week of school, there was a lot of tension. We were all hearing about people who were starting to have symptoms of the coronavirus, either people in our school or in the homes of people at our school or in our community, but testing was not readily available, so we didn’t know for sure. Parents were starting to pull their kids. Teachers were nervous. Then, one teacher went home sick after spending the whole day with his students. He tried to get a test but wasn’t able to get one until the end of the week, and by then, of course, he had been around a lot of people. It took more than a week for our school to get the information that we had been around someone who had tested positive.

When we left school that Friday, we were all expecting to go back to work the following week, and a lot of folks were feeling really uncomfortable about that. On Sunday, I watched the mayor’s press conference announcing the closure. On Monday, I started feeling a sore throat and a burning in my chest and then a dry cough. I called a good friend who is an ER doctor, who listened to my symptoms and said, “Don’t worry about going out to get tested. You have it. Just let the virus run its course — there’s nothing really to do but to rest.”

The next few days were a fever dream. There were a couple scary moments where my wife and I weren’t sure what to do. I was having a hard time breathing. We had a couple of emergency FaceTime conversations with our friend, the doctor. He would keep me on the phone for several minutes and then say I didn’t need to go to the hospital yet. I stayed isolated from my wife and our two daughters during the worst part of it, but it didn’t help because just as I started turning the corner, they got it too. Our neighbors left food and flowers at our door.  Just having some daffodils to look at while you’re lying there sick goes a long way.

The big challenge citywide right off the bat, once the schools closed, was making sure every child had an actual device to access the new remote-learning platform. We have 1.1 million children in our public-school system and a staggering number of them live in temporary housing or homeless shelters, and we have a lot of kids who are not able to connect to the internet. The first thing the city did was purchase hundreds of thousands of iPads and start distributing them to the kids. But that process is still not complete.

We were very lucky. We got a survey out to kids very quickly so they could let us know what their technology situation was. Already this was when I was not feeling well, so I deputized our vice-principal, Liz Wanttaja, who rounded up 50 Chromebooks from our classrooms and sat in the school lobby and signed them out to parents who didn’t have devices. By the end of the day, we still had a couple dozen kids who hadn’t gotten them, and then Liz and our school secretary and a teacher made home deliveries to students, and by the end of the first week of the schools being closed, nearly 100 percent of our kids had technology.

Basically, almost overnight we completely reimagined and repackaged our whole curriculum to be accessible remotely. We had no time to prepare for this. At a webinar for principals, our schools chancellor told us we are building the plane while we fly the plane. And this is happening while teachers are at home and taking care of their own children, and taking care of themselves or maybe a family member who might be sick. Many parents I’ve heard from have been extremely appreciative. I’m also hearing from parents who are like, Oh my God, this is too much. Many of them are perceiving this as homeschooling, but it’s not. When families decide to homeschool, it’s almost a philosophical choice and you logistically prepare for it. This is pandemic schooling. No one planned for this.

Right now, every day we ask teachers to make an agenda available by 9:30 a.m., so when students log on, they see whatever has been assigned to them for the day, plus any invitations to a whole-class meeting. It’s imperfect, and it doesn’t match up in any way to the quality of experience our kids would be having if they were just continuing to go to school like they always have. We are pushing teachers to create as many authentic, real, live interactions as possible. Our teachers are scheduling online group and individual meetups, or they do a read-aloud where kids are assigned to log in to Google Hangouts at a certain time to listen and discuss a book. Kids get to see their teacher’s face and hear their teacher’s voice and see all of their classmates in real time, and everyone is together having a shared experience around a particular text. This is the kind of thing that most closely resembles teaching and learning in a classroom. But, in many cases, it’s still one-dimensional — the teacher assigns kids work to do independently, and they submit it when it’s done.

At our first staff meeting after the closure, over Google Hangouts, the teachers were all thinking about how to meet academic expectations, but my message to them was to keep in mind that what kids also need from us right now is a feeling of connection and community. That’s the challenge for teachers now — not just to assign academic work for kids to do from home, but how do we create opportunities for kids to communicate with each other and just be together? This is a huge part of every school, especially elementary school.

My daughter’s fourth-grade teacher, every day this week he’s had a live experience online for his students. By now, the kids have been cooped up for a couple weeks, and they’re just desperate to have a conversation and connect with their friends. This social and emotional part of the classroom, of being part of something greater than themselves, that is the hardest thing to replicate. It’s taken a couple of days for the kids to learn the new rules, like how to mute yourself when it’s not your turn to speak. But he’s had incredible attendance. Every single day, every kid in the class logs on.

Normally, every other Monday morning our entire community gathers together in the auditorium for a schoolwide morning meeting. Parents are welcome, the teachers are there, we have a house band made up of parents and teachers and school staff. I play the guitar. We sing songs about community and peace and friendship, songs by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. With all their different schedules and curriculums, there aren’t that many things that students from prekindergarten to fifth grade can do together at exactly the same moment. This is something we do that unites us. Not being able to do that feels very significant.

I wonder what the long-term implications of this moment will be. I’ve already heard from loads of our kids, and many are scattered in different places — some other town, city, even a different country. Kids across the country are having their school life interrupted, whatever age they happen to be.

As for my kids, they haven’t set foot out of this apartment in almost two weeks, yet they seem happy. We are spending a tremendous amount of time together as a family, playing board games, making music together, getting into little projects, cooking. But still, it’s surreal and strange. Before all this happened, every day I was in the schoolyard at 8 a.m., greeting our students and parents, and again at dismissal saying good-bye to students and parents, and in between I was all over the building, interacting with all of our kids and staff all day. I talked to hundreds of people every single day. Now, I’m on an endless stream of videoconferences with the same view out my window.

How Do You Get Laptops to 1 Million Public-School Students?