When COVID-19 shut down schools across New York City, physical education teacher Michael Robilotta discovered a new way to teach students from afar—superhero-themed workout videos.
“It’s not just me telling them to do squats,” said Robilotta, GSE ’20, who works at the Reece School, a special education elementary school in East Harlem. “It’s Captain America showing them how to do squats, jumping jacks, and jumping rope without a rope.”
Robilotta is among thousands of teachers across the city who have been forced to find new ways to engage students amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As of now, schools under the New York City Department of Education will open this fall with a blended learning model: on-site instruction for part of the week and remote instruction for the rest. In phone interviews, Robilotta and his fellow alumni and faculty from Fordham’s Graduate School of Education reflected on their recent experiences with remote instruction and described how educators can be better prepared to face the new school year this fall.
‘Where Does the Line Get Drawn’?
Robilotta said some students loved the theme-based YouTube exercise videos that he screenshared in their remote gym classes. But others missed playing basketball, football, and Gaga ball with their classmates. Many students didn’t show up to class at all. Robilotta, who expected up to 36 students per class, said he saw as many as 15 students and as little as zero. It’s disheartening, but he knows his students and their families are dealing with a lot at home, he said.
Robilotta said he favors hybrid instruction—a blend of in-person and remote instruction—because it gives families the choice to send their children back to school this fall, especially essential workers and those without childcare. But that doesn’t solve every problem. How does a child safely commute to school on a crowded bus or subway? How will he teach physical education when it’s too cold or wet to play outdoors? And how do you keep everyone in the school building safe?
“What’s the difference between me remoting in from the gym or an office to me remoting in from home?” Robilotta said. “And where does the line get drawn for who comes into the building and who stays home?”
For veteran teachers like Robilotta, teaching in a pandemic was tough. But for many novice teachers like Maureen Dougherty, GSE ’20, dealing with COVID-19 was a new bombshell.
This past school year, Dougherty co-taught 30 second graders at Success Academy in the Bronx. When remote instruction started, Dougherty and a colleague split their class into two cohorts on Google Classroom and delivered live instruction through BlueJeans, a video conferencing platform. In their last online session, they reunited the whole class and played a slideshow of student photos from the school year.
“You could see them laughing and giggling and beaming over seeing themselves … It was emotional for me and my co-teacher who put this together,” Dougherty said. “It was emotional for the kids, too, because I know they missed being all together and seeing their friends.”
But Doughterty said she’s worried about getting to know her new set of students virtually in a few weeks.
“I think what made remote learning work last year was I had already established these relationships with my students. I knew their strengths, I knew what they struggled with, I knew their families,” said Dougherty, who will start school remotely. “Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the fall, the summer has been a bit of a gift because now I have all this time to prepare for the fall—to have somewhat of a sense of what’s coming.”
Diverse Strengths, Needs, and Perspectives
As autumn approaches, educators are preparing for another school year in a world where COVID-19 still exists. Su-Je Cho, Ph.D., professor of childhood special education and chair of the childhood special education division at GSE, said she recently gave advice to 50 GSE students who might be teaching students with disabilities in a hybrid classroom.
“They really need to think about how they’re going to set up their classrooms … How many students they can accommodate while social distancing, things they need to prepare—hand sanitizer, masks—what kinds of policies are going to take place in their classrooms,” Cho said.
But special education teachers were already facing unique challenges with their students. Many children with disabilities have behavioral issues, and it’s difficult to keep them all focused in the same room—and even harder from behind a computer screen, said Cho.
“Keeping them all online and teaching them together remotely [as a class]—that’s not even possible,” said Cho. “[Teachers need to] tutor each individual student twenty or thirty minutes at a time online.”
All educators need to maximize the positives of both in-person and remote environments, said GSE interim dean Akane Zusho, Ph.D. In a physical classroom, it’s easier to promote interpersonal relationships, collaboration, and connection. There’s a “more palpable sense of belonging,” and you can feel the energy of people around you, said Zusho. Educators should take advantage of their one-on-one time with students in person, she said.
Meanwhile, schools teaching remotely should take advantage of available technology. Zusho recalled when she taught statistics at Fordham and posted videos where she explained tough concepts. Her students appreciated having the ability to pause her lessons and learn at their own pace, she said.
“Technology is awful when teachers and faculty don’t really think about those constraints and affordances and basically just lecture. You’re not really taking advantage of all the things that you could do. And by doing that, you’re leaving a lot of kids behind,” Zusho said. “Leverage the power of technology or the physical classroom to make learning effective for all students.”
Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, Ed.D., assistant professor in the educational leadership, administration, and policy division, agreed that educators need to maximize their limited in-person time with students. One way to do that is to organize hands-on activities that connect students’ personal lives to what they’re learning in school, she said. For example, elementary school students can participate in circle time and connect their personal lives to what they’re learning in school.
“While covering content and meeting grade level expectations is very important, I think that it’s imperative for educators to make time for students to process their experiences,” Stosich said. “Children of all ages are grappling with not only the challenges presented by the pandemic and fears for their parents’ livelihoods, but also concerns about racial injustice. It’s important for educators to not sweep anything under the rug, but to really create an open space for dialogue.”
It’s also important for school leaders to listen to everyone on their team, from teacher aides to the senior classroom teacher, said Shaundrika Langley-Grey, MC’95, GSS’96, principal of the Nassau BOCES Jerusalem Avenue Elementary School on Long Island. It’s been difficult for the whole team to adjust to online instruction and make it more engaging for students, she said, but together, they can make it work.
“Everyone brings a different perspective and brings different solutions,” said Langley-Grey, a doctoral student at GSE. “We all need to adapt and recognize that together, we can make [this school year]happen.”