By Sam Bojarski 

Since March, New York City and Miami have been epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Educators in both regions have voiced significant concerns about the return to classes, which is only weeks away. 

“Many of the schools are very, very crowded so social distancing … we couldn’t even see how that was going to happen,” said Nancy St. Leger, who teaches special education at Coconut Grove Elementary, in Miami.

Teachers are concerned that pandemic guidelines might impact students’ ability to learn. Within the Haitian community in particular, students with limited English skills might have the most difficult time with virtual learning. Many parents are essential workers and may also lack the technology skills to help their children learn remotely, on electronic devices. 

Coronavirus cases have surged throughout Florida for more than a month, and Miami-Dade County public schools will start the school year on Aug. 31, with remote classes. In New York City, schools will divide their student populations into cohorts, with students receiving between one and three in-person days per week, depending on their school’s learning model. Parents in New York City had until Aug. 7 to opt for fully remote instruction. The Haitian community in both regions includes many essential workers, a situation that poses difficulties for remote learning. 

While the number of coronavirus cases in New York state was nearly 12 times higher than Florida as of April 1, Florida has since eclipsed New York in total cases recorded. As New York City’s COVID-19 positivity rate hovered around 1 percent, Miami-Dade’s positivity rate was 12.5 percent, as of Aug. 3. 

Francesca Altes, who teaches courses for English-language learners (ELLs) at Queens Collegiate, a high school in the Jamaica, Queens neighborhood, said she was concerned about the health impact of reopening, since many students have to take public transportation to school. 

Teachers will also have to spend time reinforcing social distancing guidelines. 

“I worry about how much actual learning is going to take place in the classroom,” said Altes, who teaches many students whose parents immigrated from Haiti. 

In New York City, a school’s size and layout will influence the number of students who can attend in-person classes. The school year is set to begin Sept. 10. 

Although the average class at Queens Collegiate contains 28 students, social distancing requirements mandating six feet of space between students will force the school to make some changes. Only about a third of the student body would be able to attend classes in-person, which would likely occur three days of the week every other week, according to Altes. 

“So estimating what the size of the room is, we cannot have more than 10 people in the classroom at a given time, so that’s the issue. And 10 includes the adults as well,” Altes said. 

St. Leger said she has prepared for the all-virtual start to the school year by taking webinars and online courses on virtual instruction. Since March, the experience of teaching virtually required more time on her part, as many students needed one-on-one guidance via video, to help them complete assignments. 

“I never worked so hard, and I’ve been teaching for years,” St. Leger also said. 

Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency medicine doctor and expert in adolescent health at Brown University, said it is possible for schools to reopen safely, as long as the surrounding community has a positivity rate of less than 5 percent. 

But even with low positivity rates, schools need to have adequate personal protective equipment, sanitation practices and space between students in the classroom. 

“That can all be done logistically, but it takes money, and it takes planning,” said Ranney, who noted that many public schools are underfunded. 

While randomly testing students and teachers would help identify coronavirus clusters before they spread, the cost of between $100 and $500 per test is prohibitive for most schools, Ranney said. With states obligated to keep balanced budgets, she added that assistance in this area would have to come from the federal government, which has not taken steps to ensure testing in schools thus far. 

“Even before the pandemic classrooms, especially those in poorer neighborhoods did not have basic supplies such as soap, tissues and disinfecting wipes. Nevermind newly needed supplies such as masks and hand sanitizer,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram, in a written statement. 

Although Miami-Dade schools will begin the year virtually, the school district plans to decide by Sept. 30 whether conditions warrant a return to in-person instruction. 

Virtual instruction challenges for students

Teachers in both New York and Miami experienced virtual instruction this past school year and noted the challenges it posed for students. 

“Some of the students, they don’t have Wi-Fi, some of the students, they don’t have enough space in the home, so they might have to sit in a corner, because there’s 10 other people living in the house with them,” Altes said. 

New York’s Haitian community has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, due in part to large household sizes and high numbers of essential workers. 

Altes said that the ELL students she teaches have parents who work health care jobs, as home care attendants or nurses aides, for example. 

“They’re not tech savvy enough to really assist (their children) with a computer or laptop, that’s one, and the work load, it’s impossible for the parents,” said Altes, who also said she had to schedule a lot of one-on-one sessions with students, to help them complete assignments. 

She also said that about 10 family members of students passed away due to coronavirus so far this year, a situation that has presented emotional difficulties. 

This spring, the New York City Department of Education loaned internet-ready iPads to students, although some waited for long periods of time before receiving the devices. Schools began using Google Classroom, which proved challenging for some parents and children to get used to. 

At P.S. 276 Lewis Marshall elementary school in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood, paraprofessionals have been paired with teachers, to assist parents with technical issues, said Vanessa LaBranche, a second grade teacher at the school. She estimated that 80 percent of the student body is of Haitian descent. 

Addressing child care, LaBranche said parents are waiting for schools to announce their reopening plans. 

“Some parents have said that they have their grandparents to stay home with the kids. One mother, her only concern was that if they are going to do alternate weeks, that her daughter goes to school the same time as her other daughter that’s in junior high school,” she said, citing conversations with parents.

Much of the burden of child care will likely fall on women, particularly women of color. As of 2017, 81 percent of single parents living with children were mothers. Jobs in essential industries that require in-person work are largely held by women of color. For example, of the more than 3 million home health care aides in the country, the vast majority are women, and more than half are people of color. 

While Miami-Dade public schools have distributed more than 119,000 electronic devices since the start of the pandemic, St. Leger said that many Haitian students whose parents work will be forced to learn independently. Those with limited English skills had a particularly hard time this past school year.

“A lot of the students, especially Hispanic students or Haitian students, the parents weren’t home to sit next to them, and they had huge difficulty with the language. So we had to find someone who spoke Creole or someone who spoke Spanish to translate the work,” she said. 

While many Haitian students live in multi-generational households and have grandparents at home, they likely lack the technology skills to assist with virtual learning. 

St. Leger also noted the health precautions she has taken to protect her own mother, a problem other multigenerational families may need to consider, if Miami schools eventually reopen for in-person classes. 

“I think I’ve left the house five times since March. Because she’s with me, and she’s very worried about me going out,” St. Leger said. 

Ranney, the adolescent health expert, said it is ideal for children to learn and socialize in person, especially those who speak English as a second language. For the schools that do reopen, she was particularly concerned about teachers, who face greater health risks due to their age and a higher likelihood of having chronic conditions. Many teach in rooms with poor air circulation. 

“From a science perspective it is important to improve air circulation and not just to circulate the same air around but to get old air out and new air in,” Ranney said.

Toward the end of last school year, Altes said students were messaging her about how difficult it was to stay home and not see their peers, as they learned virtually. With a new school year weeks away, she voiced concerns about how ELL students would adapt to social distancing guidelines and requirements to wear personal protective equipment.

For those learning English, the classroom is a place for students to express themselves, and children often develop close bonds with instructors. 

“The time that they’ve been home, that’s a lot of time lost. It’s almost like everything that was done in the beginning of the year has been undone, so now in September, we’re going to start from scratch,” Altes said.

“It is going to be challenging, I mean there are parts of me that’s concerned about my health, but I would say overall, I’m more concerned about the students and them adapting to this new way of life and them feeling comfortable enough, and making sure that they stay safe,” she added.

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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