By Sam Bojarski

More than 260,000 New York City public school students have already opted for fully remote instruction this school year. Others will still learn remotely, with in-person instruction one to three days per week, a measure designed to limit the spread of coronavirus.

To help parents assist children, Haitian-American District 45 Councilmember Farah Louis has called on the city Department of Education (DOE) to establish remote learning training. Teachers who have dealt with remote learning since the spring have noted the gaps in technology literacy, as well as the particular challenges faced by new English speakers. 

Public School No. 6 in Flatbush. Photo by Sam Bojarski

“If the kid’s struggling, the parents are struggling,” said Rita Joseph, who serves as both an ENL and technology coordinator at PS 6, a public school in Flatbush with a high population of English language learners. 

“My kid wouldn’t struggle, because I’m tech savvy,” added Joseph, who has a son who attends public school and is running in next year’s election to represent District 40 in city council. 

This winter, before schools closed, Joseph ran a technology literacy program out of PS 6 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, where parents – many of them immigrants – learned skills like typing and how to utilize email. 

After the pandemic shuttered schools, Joseph made use of video tutorials she found on the internet, to teach students how to set up their iPads and submit assignments using Google Classroom. 

“I don’t speak Arabic, but I was able to find a tutorial video in Arabic for how to set up their iPads. I found it in Haitian Creole,” said Joseph, who complemented video tutorials with step-by-step slides, which she sent to parents via email, Google Voice and Whatsapp. 

Incorporating visuals and language accessibility could be a model for a DOE remote learning training program. 

While specific details about program content and promotion would be up to the DOE, Louis said she created Resolution 1374, on remote learning, with District 45 families in mind. 

District 45, which encompasses Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Marine Park, Flatlands and Kensington, is also home to many immigrant families. 

“Many students in my district are from low income immigrant households, with parents who may not be fluent in English or technology literate. These students often lack reliable, quality internet and tend to encounter more distractions when learning at home,” said Louis, in a written statement. 

“These frustrations, along with their parents’ inability to assist with facilitating this virtual instruction, can lead students to skip class altogether rather than struggle with these conditions alone,” she also said.

Resolution 1374 is currently at the committee level in city council and has not come up for a vote. 

DOE has published online instructions on how to use iPads, Google Classroom, Zoom and other tools. The department did not return a phone call requesting comment. 

But overall, remote learning guidance from DOE was minimal this past school year, according to Joseph. “It was expanding as you go, because for them, this was also new,” she added. 

Teacher and city council candidate Rita Joseph. Photo by Sam Bojarski

Louis suggested that families should have the option to access remote learning training in the language they feel most comfortable with. 

“While the City Council cannot directly legislate the DOE, I will advocate that families be notified of the availability of this program by email, phone, and mail. Additionally, in order to keep this program accessible for all, it should be available visually as well as transcribed,” Louis said.

While educators have noted the lack of internet access among many immigrant families in New York City, the iPads distributed this past school year – although slow to arrive in many cases – came with internet access. 

The Haitian community, particularly recent immigrants, contains many essential workers who cannot stay home with their children. Not having parents at home to assist students was a challenge last school year. 

“A lot of them are nurses aides, things of that nature, where they’re interacting with the public on a regular basis. So that was a struggle, and the parents were not really home to help the students with their work,” said Francesca Altes, a Haitian American who teaches English language learners at Queens Collegiate, a high school in the Jamaica neighborhood. 

Haitian community organizations like the Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project, which assists immigrant youth navigate the New York City public school system, has provided guidance to families, in choosing what learning option works best for their children. Families can opt for fully remote instruction at any time during the school year but can only shift from remote-only to hybrid learning on a quarterly basis. 

While the organization did not share any plans it might have for helping students learn at home, upon request, Flanbwayan outreach coordinator Kalitha Nazaire said parents have been encouraged to opt for the hybrid model, if their child has been doing well in school. 

“We’re trying to assist the parents, go over the process with them,” she added. 

With the right access, parents can teach themselves virtual education tools during their time off and help their children. But a training program should also be accessible for students, who can often learn faster than adults, Joseph suggested. 

Citing concerns voiced by scientists and other teachers about a second wave of coronavirus cases in the fall, Joseph said New York City public schools should go fully remote, at least until January. 

With students having more knowledge of how to use digital learning tools, she expects the 2020-21 school year to go more smoothly than how the last one ended. 

“I’m confident that they will do better, because this was the training. What happened in the spring was the training, the training for everyone,” she said. 

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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