District 75 is a specialized district within the NYC Department of Education. It is a completely segregated school district for special needs students between the ages of 3 and 21 including those dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), significant cognitive delays and emotional disturbances. An estimated 90% of the 25,000 students in District 75’s 400 citywide district programs self-identify as students of color and the overwhelming majority fall below the poverty line. Since the school year began, almost 14,000 District 75 students have opted for in-person teaching and 11,00 signed up for remote learning. On Thursday, December 10th, as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school reopening plan, District 75 returned to in-person instruction. To better understand the impact of the Covid pandemic on District 75, we spoke with K, an art teacher at a D75 Middle School in Brooklyn.
HC: Can you tell us a little bit about what your job as an educator in District 75?
K: This is my second year teaching visual arts to grades three through eight at a school in Brooklyn. I teach both students who are in alternate and standardized classes. The former are students who are not meeting general education learning standards and have cognitive disabilities. Standardized students are those that can meet general education standards, but they have some set of emotional or behavioral disability which is a symptom of trauma. I teach a wide variety of students who either have cognitive disabilities or students who have been labeled ‘emotionally disturbed.’
My class sizes vary and can be anywhere between six, eight or twelve students depending on their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). The main thing that I have heard from my co-workers s is that District 75 feels like the NYC DOE’s forgotten stepchild. I have found this to be very true. Even during the pandemic, it didn’t seem like there was a lot of forethought about what District 75 students would need. The Chancellor and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) love to talk about how they are putting students with the highest needs first and mention D75 often, but we don’t see any changes. It is not what I am seeing day to day anyways and I have been teaching fully in person up until last week.
HC: Are you worried about your health and safety?
K: Yes, it’s something I think a lot about. It’s been hard to believe that schools were properly prepared (if that is even possible) for the reopening, because everything was decided so last minute and therefore felt rushed. This academic year, schools started late as a result of the indecision of whether to open and how to do it. The schools finally opened for teachers at the end of September, but students didn’t start school until October. We didn’t know until the last minute if schools were going to open at all, and if so how; it was a mess. Then when they announced they would re-open, It felt like everything was rushed and the DOE did not give principals much time to make all the necessary adjustments and put new plans in place.
There was a medical form we had to fill out if we wanted to be fully remote. If we had a specific reason as to why we would not teach in person (usually a health condition), we had to submit that. Most of them got approved and some got denied. I didn’t request to be home because it is so challenging to teach art (or anything) to students who need a lot of support over the internet, and I really wanted to be with my students in person again. There were a lot of teachers who did sign up for remote learning and the DOE still wanted them to report to school to teach online–putting them at the unnecessary risk of reporting in person just to teach remotely. I didn’t understand that. Those teachers complained and that rule was changed.
As far as safety goes, the most control we have is over wearing masks, washing hands and cleaning surfaces. I’m sure around the city students want to wear their masks under their nose, and my students are no different. I constantly have to remind my students to pull their masks over their nose. Or they pull their mask down to sneeze in class. There is a certain amount of risk that I have to be prepared for. I keep my mask on all day and I wash my hands frequently, but I cannot really socially distance from my students. It’s not possible. My job is very physical. I have to get close to my students to help them. A lot of teaching requires sitting or standing next to them and saying things like: “Here is where you do this, follow my finger.” Many of our students who have trouble regulating their emotions go into crisis, and that can become physical as well.
One classroom shut down this year because someone tested positive. And this was an instance where I felt my safety wasn’t really being considered. Since I am the art teacher, I see most of the classes and travel in and out of each room with a cart. I also teach during the students’ lunch period, which I find unfair for the students because they deserve a real break in the day. The class that had a positive case shut down to quarantine, but the school didn’t deem it necessary for me to stay home and quarantine. It didn’t make sense to me because I was exposed to the class during lunch when they have their masks off. And when I asked my assistant principal why I wasn’t sent home to quarantine, I learned that the school gives the information of everyone who came in contact with the person who tested positive to the city and they are the ones to decide who should stay home from work to quarantine or not. The school doesn’t really have a say.
HC: So, what are you experiencing as an educator day-to-day amid this pandemic?
K: As the visual arts teacher, my biggest stressor this year has been about resources, specifically art materials. Usually, I am used to getting by with little because the students can share. But now with Covid, students are unable to share and touch the same art materials. I can’t buy one thing for a class to share as I usually would. Because of Covid, I need four or five times the amount of art materials that I have been able to get away with before. In order to be safe, each of my students would need their own individual art kits. That’s been very hard to pull off. I just don’t have financial resources to have one set of everything for each student. Or when schools get shut down and we go remote, ideally, we need enough materials for students to bring home and to keep at school. My school’s budget is much smaller this year and I heard it’s going to continue to shrink in the next few years because of the pandemic. So, this academic year I did a lot of additional fundraising for our art materials and I was lucky to get enough for 100 students to have their own art kit. But I realize that this is impossible for teachers that have more students like most gen ed schools.
Other than the lack of resources, my other frustration is about the inconsistency regarding school closures and re-openings. Teachers are kept in the dark about when the schools will close. The fact that we can be shut down at any moment has been a nightmare for teachers to plan and for students’ mental health and well-being!
When the cases started rising in mid-November, I feel like I was frantically checking in between each class and wondering when our school was going to be shut down. I was very concerned because if we go remote, I want my students to be able to take art supplies and work with them. Some people may ask: “Well why can’t you just prepare ahead of time for a possible shut down?” And my answer is that even if I plan, there are not enough resources for them to have art materials both at home and school. So, knowing about school closures ahead of time, even one day, would be very useful to educators struggling to make do with so little. It’s such a tricky thing to plan for with less and less resources when the need is so much more.
The mayor really did us dirty when he abruptly announced that schools would close indefinitely. He made the announcement fifteen minutes after our students got on the bus to go home. This was heartbreaking because we couldn’t even get them the materials that students need for distance learning. Teachers had twenty-seven minutes to pack up our rooms and leave without not knowing when we would return.
This came as a shock to us. We were waiting for such an announcement, but we thought we would have at least one day to prepare materials and packets for our students to take home. It’s been so difficult to plan in case of a shutdown because we are working much more. Our days are shorter, we have little time to plan because we are teaching more classes back-to- back and we cannot be in the building beyond 2:30pm. These are all the little things that add up to creating an atmosphere of stress and chaos. Teachers are really good at problem solving but this feels very different and so difficult. Like, at any point, what we are working on or trying to accomplish could just get thrown out the window at the drop of a dime. Everyone feels on edge. With the abrupt closures, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.
I still have PTSD from last year because we shut down and didn’t come back until the Fall. At my school when we were able to come back in June of last spring to gather some things, our rooms were destroyed and tons of stuff, including student assignments, was thrown away. All of my students’ artwork was thrown away without my knowledge. Students still ask me about it and it’s devastating. My co-worker made a word wall for her students with autism and spent months putting it together and it got just discarded, like nothing. I have no idea to this day why this happened.
HC: As a teacher who works with students with special needs, who require a lot of care and individualized attention, how did the pandemic affect your teaching?
K: It’s going very poorly to be honest. We have amazing teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, counselors and many more, and are working very hard to support our students and families. But it’s not working in general for most of our students. When we go remote, about one third of our students are engaged and present. When I visit all the remote classes, most of them have only one or two students. My feeling is this has to do with how much support they need when they are at school. In our in-person classes, there are many adults in the room to support individual students for emotional and social development on top of schoolwork.
One of the things I find heartbreaking as a teacher is the feeling of hopelessness. When we are online and students get frustrated, they can just sign off. In school when they get frustrated, there is a whole team to help support them. In remote learning I have no control when they sign off. I can try to call their parents, but it’s difficult to engage them and work through challenges like that.
Our students have different levels of independence. There is a small number, very few who are doing well in remote learning and these are the ones who might have school or social phobias for example. That’s been cool to see, but the majority of students that need that social aspect and emotional help, routine and structure, it’s such a hard thing for families to re-create at home. Many of the students that are signing on and doing work have someone at home to help them, whether a teenage sibling or parent. And that’s a full-time job for the person helping and it’s taxing on everyone. A lot of our students have hard home lives; some of them are in difficult situations; others live in homeless shelters or foster care.
I am pretty cut off from the remote learning. It feels like we have two different schools: in person and virtual. And I often do not know what’s happening to students who are doing virtual learning.
HC: What has been the access to technology like? What are some of the challenges that your student population faces?
K: When schools first shut down last March almost most of our students did not have access to technology at home. It took them months to get the DOE issued iPads. I don’t think DOE was prepared to provide as many devices as they had to. And this has been an ongoing issue. Internet access, making sure students have devices and tech support for families are important issues that are not being addressed. I feel so bad for one of my co-workers. He teaches technology elective classes and is a full-time teacher, but he has also been designated as the tech support for our school which has five sites. He is doing this job on top of teaching full time. Devices are getting broken, stolen and there is no plan for any of this. For example, the devices are supposed to come with internet. But a lot of our students are in foster care, shelters, rotating around family member’s homes so it’s inconsistent.
In District 75, we provide a lot of services for our students that go beyond academic learning. We offer different services like for instance, occupational therapy and counseling and these are all the services that they miss out on with online learning. Not to say that the specialists don’t connect with students online and are doing very creative things, but it is challenging because they often require physical activities that are difficult to do virtually.
The challenge has also been reaching our students when they are not in the building. We have to record daily attendance. Many students do not have support at home. Some students come to class and hand in assignments and then sign off. And then there are a large portion of our students which we have no idea what they are up to, we just don’t hear from them. And all these protocols put the onus on teachers and counselors to track down students which is a lot of work on top of our regular teaching, etc.
HC: What has been the parents’ response to these issues?
K: Parents are struggling. There are a lot of mental health issues with parents too. Educators and counselors at District 75 do more than just teach students; we also provide help to families and connect them to services, etc. Also, a lot of parents are concerned that their kids are digressing from their Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals. They are seeing a lack of motivation and depression in their kids. Unfortunately, technology can be a good thing but the iPad can also be a distraction. As teachers we have been telling kids to put their phone away for a long time. But now, all learning is on a screen and so when we are in-person it is also a challenge to get them off it.
Now, it’s mandated for students to get tested for Covid. Everyone has to submit a consent form and if they opt out, then they have to get further paperwork from the doctor that shows why they are not going to get tested. It just seems like a lot of paperwork and protocols that make it hard for families. Apparently, they are cracking down and unless they have paperwork, they cannot enter the building. So many of our students can’t come to class. I am pro-testing but it seems like they are not making testing more accessible and, instead, they are penalizing our students for it. It seems like they are more interested in creating bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
In the beginning, more than half of the parents chose virtual learning. But now, more parents want their kids to return to school, especially now that the Mayor is also reopening District 75 sites.
HC: What has been the reaction of your union to the Mayor’s reopening plans?
K: At the end of the summer, teachers were gearing up to strike in response to the reopening plans. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) said we are not going in until it’s safe. But just as teachers were getting ready for a strike pledge, the UFT made a backdoor deal with the DOE. They came up with this list of demands that the UFT was happy that we supposedly won. But all of us thought these demands were bullshit. So, one of the things on that list is that 20% of people at your school will get randomly tested for Covid. Some of it was that school had to provide PPE and all of the cleaning supplies. But the biggest issue was that every school would get their ventilation system tested. Schools would not reopen unless they passed the ventilation test. That just did not happen or didn’t seem to, at least to us. The Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a caucus within the UFT, was documenting either the lack of tests or the fraudulent tests schools were doing to pass these tests. Most of the buildings are very old and they did not get updated or anything like that. This was very stressful and, for the first time, we all wondered: “What is a safe ventilation system?” Last week, we returned to school with portable air purifying units in each room, so apparently that is the new solution to the ventilation problem.
HC: Any last thoughts you want to share with our readers?
K: I have been so heartened by students’ adaptability and resiliency throughout this whole thing. I believe that our students deserve so much more than this. Last spring during remote learning, students would show up to my art class just to check in on me! It was so sweet of them and I just keep asking myself: who is this working for?
Over the next days and weeks we hope to publish more stories like this. We want to highlights everyday people’s fears and anxieties about workplace safety, unemployment and housing issues, struggles with paying bills and taking care of their loved ones as well as any acts of solidarity and collective action in these very difficult times. We want to hear from you! If you have a story that you want to share with us please email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.