Note: This is the fourth installment of Learning Curve, a yearlong series of stories following a group of families whose children are attending public schools across New York state during the pandemic.
As New York’s students near the finish line of a dizzying school-year race that no one wanted to run — of cohorts and hybrid and on-pause — and with just two months to go before summer break, some families face a tantalizing new decision.
Full-time, in-person classes are now on the table at some districts, an option some parents have dreamed of, hoped for, fought for.
How many families make the call to send their students back to in-person school varies widely by district, by school and by demographics.
How they make that call varies by household, as we found with families we’ve been checking in on periodically throughout the pandemic.
The Education Trust New York, a policy and advocacy organization that works alongside civil rights, business and other advocacy organizations to advance educational equity, surveyed New York parents twice this turbulent school year, in October and March.
In the fall, it surveyed 800 New York parents and found a nearly 20% gap — by ethnicity and geography and income — on going all-remote. Of those keeping their children home full-time in October:
The March survey, which, like its predecessor was conducted by Global Strategy Group, focused on what concerns would keep parents from sending their kids back full-time. Among them were:
Dia Bryant, Ed Trust New York’s interim executive director, said in October the “Big Five” school districts — New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Yonkers — were 100% remote and technology issues and inequities abounded. Confidence in remote learning was low.
“Parents were consistently more and more concerned, particularly in March, about the emotional development and lingering effects of pandemic school closures,” Bryant said. “If you look at that data deeply, you'll see that 48% of parents expressed confidence in in-person conditions. However, there's 52% on the other side of that, people not being confident about it.”
Still, Bryant said remote learning has its backers, and they will form a constituency that will be heard from as in-person schooling resumes, now and in the fall.
“I think the district and the state will have to fortify the way it has been done for the last year, make it an actual feasible, viable, high-quality option for parents so that parents — just like we have school choice and we say parents should be able to choose what works for them — I think this is yet another inflection point where that is going to be necessary.”
As our families navigate these decisions, the kids stepped to center stage to share their feelings on this nearly-finished school year: what they've missed, how they've coped and what they hope lies ahead.
Back in class, but worry at home
In Binghamton, 13-year-old Raelin Powell and 17-year-old CJ Brault recently returned to school for two days of in-person learning a week. But at home, there's concerning news: Their mother has suffered a stroke.
A shy teen opens up
Fourteen-year-old Say Kler Lweh of Utica has watched her other grade-school-age siblings head back to in-person classes, but her age group hasn't yet been given the green light. That's OK with the shy teenager, who often keeps her camera off during remote learning — she wonders if the teachers would even recognize her if she showed up at school.
In a long year, a glimpse of hope
In Mount Vernon, the Santiago family has decided to keep siblings Bryan and Julia home for the year. But spring has brought them small signs of hope; they just have to remember to keep looking for them.
A year like no other (thank goodness)
The five kids in Rochester's Sepulveda family are finishing out the school term from home out of safety concerns. From missing friends to struggling to connect with teachers, the siblings are in agreement on one thing: They can't wait for this year to be over.
Embracing the new normal
Nine-year-old Diamond Yeno of Poughkeepsie could have gone back to school in March, but she didn't want to. After all, she just moved in with her mom this year, so she'd be heading into a brand-new school. For Diamond, remote schooling was just one part of a year full of new experiences.