At a dining room table in Middletown, 9-year-old Leighann Jansen logs into class alongside three other siblings while balancing a wriggling toddler in her lap.
In a modest Utica home, 16-year-old Say Kler Paw — part of a refugee family of 11 — puts her English and tech skills to good use to help her younger siblings learn online, and other refugee students, too.
And in a Poughkeepsie kitchen, 8-year-old Diamond Yeno and the mother who just regained custody of her earlier this year stare at a school-issued laptop, hoping to make sense of it all. Together.
In our COVID-19 reality, what does this school year look like right now for families across New York state? From Binghamton to Mount Vernon, that answer depends almost entirely upon the starting place.
For many students across the state, remote and hybrid learning will further reveal gaps in the educational framework that have been there for decades, experts say.
“This pandemic has shed a very strong light on the role that schools play in equalizing opportunities,” says Emiliana Vegas, co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution.
Districts have done what they can to smooth the transition for students; in New York City, officials provided devices and free data plans to nearly every student. Rochester distributed mobile WiFi hotspots for households without a strong internet connection.
But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the difficulties facing students trying to learn remotely in lower-income districts, who often have parents working essential jobs out of the home. With schools’ attention focused on simply getting through the year in the midst of a pandemic, these students could fall further behind.
“Inequities pre-dated the pandemic, but we are very worried that these inequities have only grown,” says Randi Levine, policy director at New York City nonprofit Advocates for Children.
Six families whose children attend public school in urban districts across the state recently opened their doors to USA TODAY New York Network journalists for an intimate look at the frustrations, worries and realities of entering into this unprecedented school year. We’ll be following their journeys throughout the school year as some return to in-person learning and some remain at home.
Some of them spoke of hardships endured; others discussed daily headaches as they try to adjust to remote learning; nearly all expressed anxiety over what the school year might have in store. But many also spoke of deepening bonds among siblings, of new connections between parent and child.
Here are their stories — so far — from the trenches of a school year like no other.
Headphones at the ready, five remote learners stake out space around a table in their Rochester home. Think that’s a handful? Their mom is also wrapping up her bachelor’s degree in social work.
Davita Bateman of Binghamton overcame a cycle of homelessness, addiction, grief and loss. Now she and her two children will need to harness that drive and perseverance to thrive at school during the pandemic.
In a family of 11 refugees from Myanmar now living in Utica, 16-year-old Say Kler Paw helps her elementary school-aged siblings with online classes while she juggles her own schoolwork. And because she has a knack for both English and school-related technology, she helps other refugee students who knock on their door, too.
Take a peek inside the Jansen family’s Middletown dining room — transformed for now into a remote classroom for their four students — and you’ll catch a glimpse of 15-month-old Luca there, too. Their parents are weighing the risk of returning to school at some point with the hectic realities of remote learning.
The close-knit Santiago household has decided they’ll keep up virtual instruction, even as their Mount Vernon City School District eyes starting the return to classrooms in November or later. As they settle in for the long haul, a little music and a daily break are proving essential.
Kendra Smith has spent most of her 8-year-old daughter’s life trying to win back full custody. Reunited since July, the Poughkeepsie mother and child are figuring out remote schooling — while also easing in to their new life together.