Coronavirus forces New York City schools into daunting experiment with teaching from afar

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Apartment floors, kitchen counters and unmade beds became makeshift classroom desks on Monday as most of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students began their first day of remote learning, confined to their homes by the coronavirus outbreak.

It was the start of a grand, unwieldy experiment for the nation’s largest school system as the city became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

Teachers, parents and students reported promising early results. There were minimal glitches as some signed into virtual live classes using the Zoom app, although the music bands at Fiorello H. Laguardia High School noted that software problems prevented players from all keeping time in unison.

For some the downloadable writing assignments and quadratic equation worksheets were a welcome distraction from the worrying acceleration of the virus, sickening at least 117,000 New York-area residents and leaving more than 100 dead, the largest caseload in the nation.

“There was a lot of frenzy in the morning when we first started,” said Mina Leazer, an English-language teacher at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, describing a deluge of emails and notifications from overlapping technology platforms.

“It’s like a September back-to-school feeling,” she said, working from her apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “The kids are excited. We had one student who doesn’t do so great in regular classes and he was just blowing through all the assignments online.”

Still, only four out of 25 students had completed one assignment by Monday afternoon, and Leazer expected to be making a lot of follow-up calls on Tuesday.


The city’s school chancellor, Richard Carranza, had predicted “hiccups” as the system is dispersed across countless apartments in every corner of the city, from the richest to the poorest, linked by the internet and occasional phonecalls.

Some city schools have no prior experience with remote learning. Not every parent or guardian is tech-savvy or even available during the day to supervise schoolwork. Many students have learning disabilities, and about 114,000 are homeless.

A week after classrooms closed amid a broader city shutdown, teachers aimed to get students back on track. Some Laguardia students answered questions about the use of sound and music in the Tim Robbins film “The Shawshank Redemption.” Max Caito-Jefferson, a seventh-grader at Public School 9 in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, read a Dr. Seuss book with his mother.

Some of Leazer’s students were assigned the first scene in the Lorraine Hansberry play “A Raisin in the Sun,” an African-American theater landmark. Her colleague, English literature teacher Aqualyn Jones, had marked up the text in Google Classrooms with annotations, linking the story to her students’ present predicaments.

“This is one of the main themes of the play, a disappointment that life has not gone as the character expected,” Jones wrote, highlighting a description of Ruth, the play’s weary young mother. “For many of us, life isn’t going as we expected right now.”


Many schools are using the Google Classroom service, posting assignments to be completed by students as and when they can during the week. City officials lent out tens of thousands of school laptops so no child is left digitally marooned, though gaps remain.

For some it was finding a quiet corner in cramped apartments for children to crack on with assignments.

Will Lach, a 17-year-old jazz major at Laguardia High School, said he pulled on some pants, kept on the same shirt he slept in and worked from his bed, finishing an online quiz for gym class about HIV and AIDS.

“My husband’s going to be working from the kitchen counter and he’s going to be on the phone,” said Rosie Creamer, whose 9-year-old son, Charlie, is a fourth-grader at Manhattan’s Public School 40.

Charlie was eventually convinced to sit at his desk, and Creamer resigned herself to sitting with him, “because if he can get out of doing it, he will.”

In a recorded video, his teacher said hello to each of her students by name, and Creamer saw her son smile when she got to his. Charlie argued sometimes that he didn’t want to do a worksheet, but Creamer still welcomed the distraction.

“It was good for me, like, OK, what’s the next assignment?” she said. “Then I’m not sitting here and watching the news and worrying about if I’m going to end up at the Javits Center on a cot on a ventilator.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Bill Tarrant, Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)