CityWatch: NYC high school teachers confront the challenges of returning to in-person learning


For more than a year, Brian Sebastian, a Latin and philosophy high school and middle school teacher, has been conducting his classes remotely from his cramped New York apartment.

In a few weeks, however, Sebastian will be returning to the classroom at the private Grace Church School in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood for the first time —to teach his pupils in person.

“I’ve really bumped up against the limit of how much I can support my students from this distance,” he said.  “There is only so much I can do from my living room and only so much they can do from their bedrooms.” 

Sebastian, 45, is one of thousands of teachers now returning to the classroom. On March 22, New York City’s public high schools opened for in-person learning again after months of shutdowns. The city’s 488 high schools are the last category in the nation’s largest school district to reopen their doors.

“A lot of educators are really, really eager to get back in the classroom — they didn’t sign up for this profession to teach at arm’s length,” said Paula White, executive director for the teacher advocacy organization Educators for Excellence (E4E) New York. 

The decision follows a federal drive to make schools safe again for teachers and students. 

The $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package passed in Washington includes $10 billion for schools to expand their testing. Meanwhile, on March 2, President Biden stated that he wanted every school staff member “to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March.” 

The Empire State has led the way. 

“New York did a good job in terms of prioritizing educators for the COVID-19 vaccine. Whereas in other states they came in the third or fourth batch of eligible persons, in New York they were in the second batch,” Ms. White said. “Certainly, teachers that are eligible have had an easier go of it in New York than almost any other state in the country.” 

As such, teachers “are cautiously optimistic about getting back into schools en masse,” she said.

For Sebastian, who received his second vaccine dose in late March, the extra level of protection is “what I have been waiting for. Like, OK, now it’s safe enough for me to come back.” 

Yet returning to the classroom poses its own challenges, largely due to the hybrid learning system, meaning some students will travel to school while others will stay remote. 

About 55,000 high school students returned for in-person learning on March 22. That amounts to just under 20% of the city’s high school population of 282,000. 

“I have gotten used to teaching remotely,” Sebastian said. “In a way, it’s simpler because I see my whole class through the same medium. But when I go back to teaching in person, I am going to be juggling two different media at the same time—half my students there, and I’ll still be in front of my laptop dealing with the other students at the same time.” 

Sebastian believes it will be worth it. 

One skill “teachers try to instill in students is how to advocate for themselves,” he says. “If I’m not in person I can’t really do that very well — if all the teachers are remote, [students] are not working that muscle. That’s one thing that has really been lost over the last year.” 

Attention deficit

Teachers report that student engagement, too, has suffered. 

In a national survey published by E4E in February, over half of teachers across grades and school types reported that student participation, attendance and learning was worse than before the pandemic. 

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That has been the case particularly for students from less privileged backgrounds, who may have lacked parental support or the right technology, and for those with special needs. 

“Teachers are going back very concerned, and rightly so, about inequities… [that] may have been exacerbated by virtual learning,” White said. “Teachers are concerned how they are going to meet the needs of those students and how wide the divide will be.” 

Facing new pressures and fears

For some teachers, who are also dealing with their own stress from prolonged periods of isolation, the pressure has been too much. According to data from the NYC Teacher Retirement System, teachers in New York City announcing their retirements last September leaped 28% compared to the same month the previous year. 

A nationwide poll of educators conducted by the National Education Association last August found that 28% of teachers said the pandemic would make them more likely to either leave teaching altogether or to retire early. 

CJ Holm, a dance teacher at the P.S K721 Brooklyn Occupational Training Center, has no such plans. But, she says, the last year has been “stressful.” 

Holm, who works in a school for children and young adults with special needs ranging from autism to Down syndrome, has spent the last year teaching both in-person and online. 

To protect herself, she purchases her own, medical-grade masks and face shields. When she gets home, she practices a decontamination procedure: Putting her clothes straight into the laundry and showering before she touches anything. 

Yet Holm recently discovered a student in her class had tested positive for COVID-19. This led the classroom to close and, a week later, when another case was discovered, closure of the school. 

“That classroom is a high-support classroom. The students are encouraged to wear masks, but their mask use is imperfect and their distancing is non-existent,” she said. “It was a rude awakening… I don’t want them exposing each other. I don’t want anyone to get sick.”  

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Despite this, Holm believes that the last year’s learning curve — while steep  — has provided some positives. 

For the first time, she is using the school’s outdoor yard for classes, a space she intends to continue to utilize once the pandemic is over, given, as she says, “some of our city kids don’t get outdoor time.”

And, for those children who still learn online, she has found her classes have had more reach. 

“We have kids from other schools who sit with their siblings when we do dancing. I also have students from years past who are coming to my classes,” she says, noting, sometimes, even parents join in. “The families are stressed. For some dance class is family together time.” 

This year, the school will be putting on a musical production of “The Phantom Tollbooth,” working with students both in-person and remotely. Teachers will merge a live show with recordings. 

Educators predict that New York’s schools will not fully convert to full in-person learning again until the fall of 2021. For Holm, the musical, in the meantime, is a way to reach more kids. “It’s really nice to see them smile,” she says. 

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