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The Stark Reality Behind Hybrid Learning in New York City
Name and occupation: Mimi O’Connor, NYC Editor, Red Tricycle
Spouse occupation: Television producer
City: Brooklyn, NY
Grade my kid is in: Third Grade
School set-up in 2020: My daughter attends an NYC public school in Brooklyn. NYC is the only major public school system to attempt a (daunting) mix of in-person and remote (i.e. virtual) learning, dubbed “hybrid.”
When I think about the beginning of the 2020/2021 school year in New York City, a few adages come to mind. For example, “If you don’t like the weather [insert location], wait five minutes,” or “If you want to make god laugh, just tell him your plans.” Also, “OMG WTF I’m losing my mind.” Not only is the situation challenging, the challenging situation keeps changing—the start date, the revised start date, what remote learning looks like., etc.
I believe our school and teachers are doing the best they can and there are other forces at work, but it’s also impossible to plan and the chaos has taken its toll on parents throughout NYC.
Right now, our school week has been a melange of remote-school with some synchronous learning, in-person school and a trial day of a learning pod we’ve been hoping to get together. (It’s been slow-going due to struggles in finding a teacher, navigating differences in priorities and budgets, but we’re making progress.)
Giving Hybrid a Whirl
Our experience with remote learning in the spring moved us solidly into the option with some in-person teaching, as we found ourselves in an unsustainable place of managing/coaxing/yelling at our daughter about assignments and too much Minecraft—the last of which she’d never even played pre-pandemic. It sucked.
More to the point, our daughter is very social and clearly thrives on/needs the in-person feedback from teachers and fellow students alike. I’ve heard remote learning actually suited some children better, but that’s not our kid.
Are we worried about any of us getting sick? Sure, a bit. But we’re trying to be careful, have faith in our school and at this point are willing to take a calculated risk for the “normal” school experience our daughter has so desperately missed since March.
What Does Hybrid Mean, Exactly?
Better than me trying to to explain how often our daughter goes to in-person school, here’s the school’s “co-hort” schedule for October. (The long answer: on a three week-schedule, she attends every Thursday; on Week One she also attends Tuesday, on Week Two she also attends Monday. So yes, Week Three, she’s in person one day a week.)
Note: To try to set up any kind of learning pod, the kids had to be in the same co-hort, so they would be doing in-person or virtual learning on the same days. (One of our members had to request a switch, and the school was very responsive in making the switch.)
Waking Up and Getting Up Are Not the Same Thing In Our House
There’s a difference between waking up, and getting up, in our house. While I am often the last one to be conscious (7:30, 7:45 a.m?), my husband and daughter are usually awake before me. It’s not unusual for me to find her in her fancy new tent that she bought with Amazon gift cards watching something on her iPad, or for my husband to ease himself into the day perusing the headlines in bed.
I head down to make coffee—we have a quasi-commercial-grade “velocity brew” Bunn machine that we can prep the night before and makes a pot in about three minutes—and start rattling the cages to get her moving.
Whether I get dressed or not depends on if I’m taking her to school. Typically, I don’t shower, either because I’m sucked into my computer/work or because I have the idea that I’m going to work out later and will sweat so what’s the point. (Sometimes, it does happen, thanks to this slim little treadmill I love.)
And Now for Something Completely Different: “Real” School
The exciting days we walk to school, line up six-ish feet apart, our daughter gets her temperature checked and in she goes. There are eight kids in her in-person class. As it stands, she’ll go about five days a month, but not only is it good for her mental health, she gets a ton of attention from her two teachers when she is there. (We figure it’s like private school on steroids.)
I picked her up on the first day of in-person school, and while it was a little weird—the kids lined up six feet apart in the school yard—it was also triumphant. When asked how her first day was, my daughter said, “Interesting…” which quickly turned to “AMAZING!!!”
In recent days, our longtime babysitter picks her up and they head to the park, a hotbed of activity for the elementary set and beyond. (We so, so, appreciate this time now—outdoor, free play, with friends—and try to soak up as much as we can while the weather still allows.)
Remote & Close at Hand
On remote days, our daughter is set up in her room with a desk we had to convince her needed to be cleared off so that she had space to do her work. (It was piled high with graphic novels and the many doo-dads that a third grader accumulates.)
Her remote school day is a mix of “synchronous instruction” (live lessons from her teachers with classmates), followed by offline times for working on assignments connected to those lessons. There is also a morning meeting and closing meeting, and the hours mirror an in-person school day.
She has an Echo Dot in her bedroom—an impulse bargain buy of my husband’s on Prime day I think. We use it to schedule alarms for her different “synchronous learning” sessions throughout the day with teachers and her class, and she uses it to listen to music (the same five pop songs).
Whether she’s remote or in-person, my husband and I share a small office during the day, with one or the other dipping out to other rooms for Zoom meetings and conference calls as needed. We tag team on making lunch, depending on who is busy at that time.
Our daughter’s room is next door to the office, so we’re in tune with what she’s doing (or not doing). She also pops out to ask for help, guidance on how to spell a word, report on what she just finished, etc. (She also comes in demanding food, messing with us and generally distracting us. I can’t blame her, but it makes us considerably less productive and more frazzled than when she’s not here.)
Sometimes we prompt her to put in a little more effort—say, write more than one, phoned-in sentence for an answer, and generally this does not go well. (See: the importance of a teacher that’s not us, and her peers.)
Building a Pod: Not So Easy—or Cheap!
Which leads us to the pod. Parents around the country have been abuzz about pandemic learning pods, and those in New York City are no different. We’d established a very informal pandemic “bubble” by early-summer, doing some careful, masked, outdoor play dates with a couple of families so that the kids, who were clearly suffering, would not go insane.
The idea of returning to remote learning and experiencing a do-over of the spring was not an option, even if virtual learning would be more robust in the fall. Our small bubble pow-wowed about putting together a remote-day “pod”, brainstorming activities and possible outside solutions. Our goal is to have some kind on in-person support for the kids on remote days, helping them with both their class assignments, and, when possible, providing additional enrichment/mental stimulation.
We soon learned that prices ranged from costing a fortune ($10,000 per kid), to costing a smaller fortune ($35/hour/kid), to affordable for some, with a person who probably wasn’t up to providing the academic support we hoped for. (It seems like certified teachers were snapped up by the “pod-organizing services”, which charge a significant markup for their match-making.) Of course, we’re all well aware that having any additional funds to support kids’ learning in this time is a luxury. It does not feel great, but we’re doing it.
We didn’t need a lifer Golden Apple-award winner, and I searched for a plucky grad student by calling programs in the city, reaching out to alumni groups on LinkedIn and in forums on Facebook, but to no avail.
Finally, as it often happens in New York, “my husband’s cousin’s tutor” was highly recommended. (But for real that is how we found her.) She had someone who worked for her who seemed good, and we set up a trial at one of the pod members’ house, crossing our fingers and praying it could work.
We dropped her off at 10:30 a.m. and picked her up at 2 p.m., finding a scene of studious third graders working on a writing exercise in their notebooks. This was followed up by a math and engineering lesson from a recent college grad/older sibling. By all accounts, it was a much-needed success. Of course, we are still ironing out all the details, but hope to start soon. (AKA, ASAP!)
Dinner, or, My Secret Shame
I think my husband and I are pretty OK parents in many respects. We try to expose our kid to lots of people and experiences, develop her emotional intelligence and independence and let her be who she is (not who we “want” her to be) among other things.
But, guilty confession, we don’t eat dinner together as a family. Occasionally, we have something called “family dinner”, where we do prepare a meal, or order in and eat together “like a normal family,” but generally, my daughter eats her dinner in the early evening, and yes, sometimes, often, she does it watching TV. We’ll often watch together, and bond, chatting about whatever show we pick. I find reality shows like Project Runway are an excellent way to point out and discuss the very best and worst aspects of human behavior, failure and success, focus and determination, etc.
My husband and I eat much later, after our daughter’s evening routine of teeth, pajamas, and reading (we read to her, a ritual left over from when we started the Harry Potter series a while back, and now it’s a nice way to end the day. We’re currently on book one of The Mysterious Benedict Society. Recommend!)
We finally sit down for dinner and a stolen hour of escapism in front of the TV around 10 p.m. Perhaps even more scandalous, we don’t even eat the same thing—I eat a lot of salmon, flounder and DIY Mexican; he does mostly salads, grilled chicken and chili. Occasionally, we order in sushi if we’re feeling fancy. One of us often falls asleep on the couch before our show is done. We ooze into the bedroom, hit the hay and start again in the morning.
Post script: As I was finishing this, on a day before my daughter was to return to in-person learning, our school—located near an area with an uptick in Covid infections—closed for two weeks. This of course, changes the landscape again.
When I told her the news she was devastated. It was heart-breaking. A school parent hastily-organized a press conference for the next day, and I dragged my daughter along, encouraging her to do something with her anger rather than “eat a spoonful of frosting because she was depressed.” (No lie: that’s what said.)
To say my daughter enjoys being the center of attention is a bit of an understatement. She stepped up to the mics and talked about how much she loved in-person learning, and the precautions the school is taking, and yeah, we’re very proud. (She is a bit more concerned with how many people saw her on TV and the “likes” she may have garnered on a councilman’s Twitter feed, but I’m hoping my praise for speaking her mind and taking action registers in the headiness of her new found “fame.”