With the school year just around the corner, teachers are anxious, fearful and upset about the idea of returning to the classroom. In a recent survey conducted by local school PS 321 in which all faculty and staff participated, 87.6% of respondents said that they would prefer to start remotely either for their own safety or for the safety of their colleagues and their families.
Our educators are not expendable. They are our GOLD. SSP reached out to the community asking for volunteers to share their views about NYC schools reopening. We’ve heard from several teachers in NYC and surrounding areas, and they have a LOT to say. All names have been kept anonymous to protect their identities, and each text color represents a different teacher's voice.
When asked about concerns as schools plan on reopening this Fall, here is where our teachers stand:
My concerns are two-fold, both health and safety and educational quality.
Health and Safety. There are many issues that have not been addressed and there are not clear answers as a system nor for individual buildings for how these will be addressed. I am very concerned about the health of those inside the school (all staff and students) as well as what opening schools is going to do to students' families' health and the greater community. Based on what we are seeing with school openings around the country and the world, putting people together in a school building is going to increase the spread of Covid and more people are going to get very sick. I am also concerned about what this will do to the front line workers in hospitals who have already been through hell.
There are also very granular issues around health and safety that are not clearly addressed. There has been lots of talk about proper ventilation and whenever I ask that question at my children's school, the school where I work or DOE forums, the question is either ignored or answered without details about what has been checked and what will be done. The best answer I got was that windows can be opened but air conditioners can not be used. In both my and my children's school, the buildings are very old and windows only open a few inches. I'm not sure how that will provide proper ventilation. Furthermore, the school where I work is covered in scaffolding and a fine mesh cover. We haven't been able to open our windows for a year because the dust from the construction is dangerous to breathe. So I'm not sure if we will be able to open our windows when school starts. If we do, that's an awful trade off (construction dust or Covid) and the mesh around the building does ot allow for air exchange.
My other main concern about safety is reporting cases and testing. In March, cases were not reported and school remained open after people were symptomatic. So, there was a period between the onset of symptoms and the reporting of tests to close a school. This means that the virus was probably floating around for days. The DOE's new plan to shut down classes or schools only AFTER a positive case will create this same situation. If someone is showing symptoms, they have the OPTION to get tested or not (problem #1). Then, if they do get tested, the building remains open until the test comes back. This can take anywhere from 2-14 days, depending on the lab. In the meantime, the virus can be floating around that classroom and every single person that teacher and students have contact with. Also, is a 24 hour closure enough for a full investigation? Who is doing the investigating and what is the criteria for the investigation? How and when will ALL members of the community be informed of the results? In March, people in both my school and my children's school tested positive and we did not find out until long after the fact. Should we have been in quarantine at that time? Should we have told others that we had had contact with to warn them? Yes, but we did not know until months later.
Finally, the day to day in-school plans for health and safety- hand washing (no sinks in classrooms), mask wearing, temperature checks and social distancing are going to be very hard to enforce and each school and possibly each classroom will likely have a different interpretation of what these mandates will look like. Who is monitoring and enforcing these? School staff who have not had any training? Or will the DOE send in monitors on a regular basis to ensure that these mandates are being followed as they outlined?
Educational Quality. Whether a family choses remote learning or hybrid, 60-100% of instruction will be done remotely on-line. The DOE had since March to offer professional development to teachers and school staff and find ways to improve the quality of remote instruction. We all know (teachers too) that it was not ideal, but teachers flipped their entire profession in a matter of days with no support, professional development and we used our own materials in our homes and our own technology. We learned a lot and if we were given the time and resources this summer and during our normal planning in June or during weekly staff meetings since March, we could have greatly improved instruction for children. The DOE could have used this time to reach out to the students they are calling "vulnerable" to find out what specifically families need and make a plan to get it to them. This could have been communicated to schools who could make granular plans to better support all families.
Additionally, the hybrid model offers a very inconsistent delivery of teaching and learning. Research shows that children learn best when they get repeated opportunities to practice new learning with support within 24 hours of learning that material. If they are in school every other day or in some cases only once a week, they will not get these opportunities to solidify new learning. It simply isn't educationally sound. If they are working remotely each day with the same teacher for each subject (or in elementary school the same teacher all day), their instruction will be consistent.
Finally, when (not if) school closures happen, this is another case when instruction will become inconsistent. Teachers will be scrambling, often finding out at home that school or their class will be closed and they will be home without teaching materials for possibly 2 weeks. This is not how quality instruction happens. This is constant scrambling and readjustment without a coherent through line of clear outcomes for the class and individual children.
My main concern is that the decision to reopen schools as a hybrid model is extremely flawed. I am concerned that our Governor and Mayor are more concerned with federal approval, or making the public believe they tried everything in their power to get kids back to brick-and-mortar schools. They are willing to risk everyone for a faint possibility that we could, at best, trudge through.
The safety of our kids and educators is my main concern.
The safety and well being of children and teachers who are being put on the front line everyday are my main concern. They have not been actively involved in the decision making process when deciding if they are comfortable doing their job with so little information and so few safety guidelines being implemented (overhauling the ventilation systems in all these old school buildings for instance). Teachers should be consulted by the school districts they work in (along with families) in the decision making process when it directly affects them. For young children especially they need consistency to thrive and be successful. Going to school only 1-3 days a week will not ensure that. Teachers will spend a lot of time cleaning and managing children struggling to wear their masks, hand sanitizing, hand washing, social distancing - that little learning will actually take place. Social distancing is difficult to achieve when teaching.
My concerns are twofold. Firstly, health and safety. I don't feel that the plan as proposed is adequate. Without a frequent on-site testing (with rapid results) for staff and students, it will be difficult to curb outbreaks. Moreover, no time has been allotted to familiarize teachers and other staff members with safety protocols. Secondly, in-person learning will be drastically different from what it has been in the past (shortened day, "instructional" lunch, limited peer-to-peer interaction/socializing, potentially high levels of stress among staff). While remote learning was a flop for many families, it could be improved if schools were given the necessary time and resources.
There are so many concerns about reopening this fall that I don't even think I can write them all. I am concerned about the health and safety of the students and staff. I don't see how we are going to keep everyone (including teachers) wearing masks all day. I am concerned about the students who believe that they can't get it or that it is a hoax and will not follow the rules when they aren't going to be watched. I am concerned about the children riding on the bus and sitting close together and sharing air and then coming into my classroom. I'm concerned about being in a room with students I don't know and I don't know their family. I am worried that since I won't be able to see my student's faces, I won't be able to read their expressions and know if they understand me. I am concerned that since my students won't see my face they won't really get to know me. I'm worried that the schools won't be cleaned. I am concerned about what will happen when a student or staff member tests positive. My list can go on forever...there are so many layers and levels of fear about going back to the classroom.
The department of education has set out certain guidelines that they want schools to follow. Here are their thoughts on those guidelines and how realistic they are:
Not at all realistic. I keep calling them ideas not plans. Plans are granular with specific moment to moment, case by case details. The DOE guidelines are sweeping mandates that are just being left up to each school to create plans. Those in the school who are making the plans are not receiving training or guidance. Furthermore, I'm not sure how the hybrid learning plan will come to be. The DOE is expecting 20% of the teachers to apply to work remotely because of health conditions. Is it the plan for these teachers to provide remote instruction? This does not even seem efficient educationally or monetarily. If about 40% of children are in person in school each day, 80% of teachers will be teaching the minority of children each day while 20% are teaching 60% of children who are working remotely (and this does not even include the families that are choosing 100% remote as we do not yet know that number).
There is no consideration given to how very different every building is. In order to make school buildings safe, there are major adjustments that need to be made. Many elementary schools have kids at shared tables, those need to have plexiglass dividers on them. I meet with my school's planning committee and deciphering a staggered arrival and dismissal is very complicated, let alone the path of student traffic during those times. We have railroad classrooms for most of the classrooms in our building, that means in order for one class or group to access the bathroom or hallway - for any number of reasons- would have to pass through another's. So would the teachers. As of last week, what I heard from my colleague that visited my school, there have been no directions on how to implement building adjustments. And, as a 20-year veteran teacher at the DOE, this does not surprise me in the least.
The plans are not realistic. They are saying schools will be able to make all of these changes to keep our kids safe, but that is not going to happen. Schools are educational institutions, not trained health clinics. They cannot keep our kids safe despite their absolute best efforts.
I do not think the DOE guidelines are attainable for all students and their families. There are too many unknown variables (transportation issues, cross contamination going from school to home, etc) at work to completely keep students and staff safe.
The safety guidelines might be possible, but only with more planning time and more money for additional staff (both teaching and custodial). The instructional piece continues to leave teachers and administrators with more questions than answers. For example, at each grade level there will be three groups of kids learning each day (the in-person cohort, the at-home cohort, and the all remote cohort). Teaching those three groups is the job of three separate teachers. Schools still don't know who will be responsible for each group and how staffing will work. In reality, the DOE would need to nearly double the teaching staff (at least at the elementary school level) to make this work. In the end, it seems likely that classroom teachers will be expected to simultaneously teach their in-person and at-home cohorts resulting in inferior instruction for all.
I have only skimmed through the guidelines because they make my head spin. I don't know how it is possible for schools to be able to adhere to the guidelines set out by the CDC. It is not realistic nor feasible.
We asked how teachers feel about returning to the classroom as it pertains to their own family dynamic and safety:
I do not feel safe. Our children should not be a part of this science experiment to see if this will work or not.
Teachers are not babysitters. I understand that childcare is not a luxury that everyone can afford, however a teacher should not be asked to risk their life in order to provide that service. Remote learning should be the only option right now.
Our family has decided for 100% remote learning for the fall. I just don't feel reassured that my children will stay safe at school and I don't think the education they will get will be better with hybrid and there will be no socialization. It breaks my heart to think of them sitting alone in a desk all day, unable to really be with their friends. It's not developmentally appropriate for them to sit in one seat in one room all day long, including lunch.
As a teacher, I am terrified. There is no clarity around how we will be protected for so many reasons (some outlined above). Also, what happens when another teacher is sick? Will the kids from his/her class get split into other classes when there are no subs, further spreading illness around the school? What happens when a child comes to school sick? It happens all the time. What happens when DOE provided hand sanitizer, soap and masks are depleted? It will happen. I am also worried as 2 of us have asthma and I don't want to bring the virus home to my family. This terrifies me more than anything.
I do not worry about my kids' safety because I do not have a choice. I must send my 3-year old and 5-year old to school whenever possible. Yet, I am being asked to report to school five days a week - when I have no care for my boys on the days they are expected to be remote. My husband must work. My boys attend different elementary schools because my 3-year old didn't get into my school's pre-K. How are we expected to provide extra care for our kids? We don't know their schedules, we don't know if they can match so that we can seek out hiring help at home part-time. In my opinion, I should be entitled to a remote learning center/child care for my boys, but there is no word about this at all. I am left to my own devices here.
Many other professions can work from home as an option yet teachers do not have that privilege. Hard choices are being made by many families as to how to homeschool their children and work at the same time. It’s a shame that teachers are forced into choosing between career or family with the hybrid learning plan. Districts are losing talented teachers because they can’t come back due to child care, or fear of contracting Covid, or possibly infecting someone else with this virus unintentionally.
I'm scared. COVID is still very new and we don't know enough yet about how it is transmitted, how to treat it, or what long term effects on health it may have to make me feel comfortable working in a school or sending my children to one.
I'm worried about the amount of contacts our family of 5 will have each day. For the past 5 months my family has been very careful about limiting our interactions and now I feel like everything we have done may be for nothing.
We all want to know, are schools in a position to operate safely this Fall? Here are their responses:
I don't think it's possible for schools to operate safely. Kids will be eating in the classroom with other students and the teacher which isn't ideal. Many kids will not be able to keep their mask on all day thus exposing the other students and the teacher.
Yes it is possible - but the bureaucracy, as usual, has made this totally impossible. Now we are expected to open in exactly a month from today, and it is in the hands of educators, administrators, School Leadership Teams, and districts to figure out how this can be done with following guidelines and keeping our students and staff safe. None of us have faith that testing and tracing will be provided in an effective way. It is inevitable, as we can see across the country with schools opening, that COVID-19 will arrive at many of our schools. Families and staff do not isolate, many families are now socializing (even if distant) with certain people so exposure can occur outside of school and during weekends.
I don't think it will be possible for schools to operate safely until we have a better testing plan, viable therapeutics, a vaccine, or, at the very least, suppression of the virus nationally.
No. I think in order for us to operate safely we would need to have more funding and I don't see that happening.
Their ideal situation for September:
Full remote learning until January.
My ideal situation cannot happen, and I am ok with that. My top priority is that we keep children and educators safe, and that will not happen if we open schools in the fashion the DOE wants.
100% remote for all with training for teachers and outreach to find out what supports families need.
Ideally,I think schools should be all online learning until there is a vaccine to ensure the safety of children, teachers, and staff.
At this stage, we should be delaying the start of school for a few weeks, then begin school with remote learning after that. Schools get their buildings adjusted, and districts get testing and tracing systems for every building and district. Districts can figure out the challenging issue of how to best support all children: General education and Special education. Also, how to make sure there is equity with staff and their altered positions.The conundrum of which teachers teach remotely, or in person could be ironed out. Teachers can train with remote teaching for the first few weeks of September then begin the year remotely. We aren't preparing for the possibility of a lockdown or a fire, we are preparing for how to protect a couple hundred students and staff from a virus that is highly contagious!
My ideal situation is remote learning for most students (including my own incoming kindergartener) and some in-person schooling for high-need populations. In addition, continued access to childcare for the children of essential workers and increased pressure on companies to offer flexible work from home policies for their employees.
100% distance learning. What school districts should have done was put the money that they will be spending on additional staff and other expenses to open towards training and planning for distance learning. If the plan was to be 100% distance learning teachers would be spending the last few weeks of summer planning amazing lessons. Instead, we are spending the last weeks of summer wondering what we will be doing in September.
Our teachers wanted to share these additional thoughts with us:
The mindset here of many educators, politicians and parents is that in-person school is much more valuable learning than remote. It isn't, when we must socially distance and never leave a classroom. It isn't, when many teachers silently feel a range from terrified to concerned. None of us feel confident that we will be safe in our school buildings, so therefore, must practice a high level of restraint, caution, paranoia. Many teachers worked tirelessly to make sure remote school was as valuable as could possibly be - very much on our own without valuable online resources from DOE. If the DOE and NYC had instead placed priority in supporting a rich remote school environment by seeking out what could be the standard resources, platforms, guidelines and expectations - that would have been a better use of time. Other teachers need tech training and practice and support, regardless of hybrid model, that support and reliability should be provided by the DOE. It is very possible to create a very engaging learning environment remotely and this is the safest, without a doubt.
I don’t know how ANY working family is navigating these times- working full time (or at all)and having children to care for simultaneously is not feasible. Either your work or your children suffer (or perhaps both) due to your time constraints and attention being pulled in so many directions. Parents are being asked to do the impossible right now, and there aren’t any right answers.
I want readers to understand how logistically impossible this all is and how hard administrators and teachers are trying to make it work. With school only a month away, there are still so many unanswered questions about safety and learning.
We, teachers, want to be back in school. However, we don't want to be the guinea pigs. When the entire country was shutting down in March (sports, concerts, meetings etc.) and we were still teaching... that was the worst feeling I have ever felt in my life. I felt that I didn't matter, my life didn't matter, my family and my students didn't matter. I couldn't understand why gatherings of large groups were being cancelled but we were putting hundreds of students in a cafeteria. None of it made sense and I found myself hiding in the bathroom crying on several occasions. I am starting to have those feelings again. Especially now that we know more about this virus and how it is spread. I want to go back to normal too, but not at the cost of lives.
Kids will be “behind” if we don’t go back to in person learning... but they will be alive, and so will their teachers.
In this month’s interview, we are highlighting a very special friend to SSP and South Slope business owner, Sonja Neill-Turner, who founded the Brooklyn Sandbox Early Learning Center. Learn about how her personal experience with her son influenced her to open the center, and how children’s unique interests help build and drive the curriculum. Her commitment to childhood education is palpable, and she is an inspiration to all of us who are so very passionate about our children’s early developmental years AND an inspiration to anyone looking to follow their dream and build a small business of their own.
SSP: Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how your life ultimately led you to becoming an entrepreneur in South Slope, founding the Brooklyn Sandbox preschool?
I come from a family of educators. The emphasis was always present growing up. My grandparents were a huge influence on me and they always harked on the equalizing aspects of a good education. It drove my choice in schools I attended and in places that I chose to live. It’s one of the reasons I chose Park Slope. I’ve been a Park Slope resident for over 14 years. The family-centric draw was so appealing. I call it the Mayberry of New York City. And the schools here are strong academically.
Before starting Brooklyn Sandbox, I worked for a large beauty retailer in corporate education. The position was wonderful in that I was able to help shape company culture from leadership to the sales environment. The position commanded a 50% travel schedule which at the time, I loved, but became challenging when the time came for my son, Chase, to head off to kindergarten. It was important to me to be a part of his schooling.
Earlier, in his preschool setting, he flourished but was showing signs of developmental delays in writing and self-regulation. A diagnosis of sensory integration made me reevaluate my ability to be wholly present for him given my travel schedule as he started elementary school. As it turns out, my department was being relocated to San Francisco and since I couldn’t make the move, I negotiated a severance package and began the research to open a preschool. Given my son’s preschool experience, I realized, had it not been for a trained educator, we would not have had the insight to look beyond his behavior. Early intervention was so key to understanding this critical stage in brain development.
So I began to read voraciously, probing the minds of the many therapists that worked with my son so that I could not only learn what I, as his parent, needed to give him, but also how to advocate and support him in his elementary school years. He is the real inspiration behind Brooklyn Sandbox.
SSP: What specifically about early childhood education intrigues you the most and what motivated you to open a school here in South Slope?
The science of learning is what intrigues me most. The brain development in the first five years of life is when it's at its most dynamic. To watch and see how children use investigation and discovery to come to their own conclusion is a marvel I’m so in awe of. I wanted to build a school that not only gave children the developmental frame in which to grow, but also served as a resource for families. I wanted a holistic "soup to nuts “ approach to early education. I feel strongly that family education is tantamount to understanding and supporting the growth of each child. I learned so much from my son’s preschool teachers. I consider myself pretty versed in parenting, but the science of learning was a whole new ballfield.
SSP: What would you say is the core Brooklyn Sandbox philosophy and mission?
I share with all who come into our community that development is at the heart of our teaching philosophy. Of course, the development of the child is central to what we do, but we also support each family holistically. We take the time to understand what’s important to their dynamic, we probe beyond life in the classroom and we ensure a connection that is open so families feel they have the space to build meaningful relationships with their children’s teachers. We often say that a milestone for the child is a milestone for the family. That IS development. We also think of ourselves as a community of lifelong learners. Our teachers form a learning circle and share and push each other into new ways of thinking and reflection in their teaching practice. NO two years are ever the same and they thrive because of it.
SSP: Is there a certain method of teaching that you follow or is it a blend of different techniques?
We are a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool. Our approach follows that of a play-based model where children are central to the course of study. The teacher works to closely observe and document their interests and wonderings and use those interests to build the curriculum. Children will engage more deeply in what they are interested in. And I will tell you, a two- and three-year old interests are more profound than any preconceived unit of study. For instance, we’ve studied sound - the manipulation of sound to create music, how sound can influence emotion, how sound influences art and the impermanence of sound - all because the children were enthralled with the daily ringing of the church bells at noon. The Reggio approach built upon a solid understanding of child development drives all that we do at Brooklyn Sandbox.
SSP: I understand that nature based play is an integral part of a preschoolers experience at Brooklyn Sandbox. With all of us at home these days, this sounds especially intriguing. Can you elaborate as to why this is so important to you and the school?
Nature is so important for so many reasons. There are many studies that document the benefits of nature-play for children. Most recently I read where the majority of diagnoses of developmental delays are happening in urban environments. It’s clear that our disconnect from nature is influencing our children’s development. In nature, there exists every learning concept that classrooms seek to recreate. Think of it - the life cycle, water cycle, seasons, habitats, weather, food production - the learning is endless. The natural environment is sensorily-rich without any effort on the part of the teacher. We also see the social aspect amplified in a natural environment. Think of how calming nature is for us as adults. It’s the same for children. I’ve seen the most rambunctious of children become keen, quiet observers in nature. It’s a great way to alleviate these anxiety inducing days. I think one of the most compelling reasons for outdoor nature play is the social-emotional learning that takes place. Risk-taking takes a front seat. It’s an aspect that is critical in the self-learning of boundaries and building self-esteem. As parents we tend to work hard to remove any potential harm to children in their environment. But how will children learn to discern what is potentially harmful without that important feedback loop of try, learn, adjust, try again?
And given the present climate and the emphasis on health, nature once again provides an immense benefit. Strengthening the core and improving balance comes not from walking on even surfaces like our apartment floors and city streets but comes from running across undulating grass, climbing uneven hills, jumping from misshapen rock to misshapen rock and climbing knobby tree trunks. Those activities engage and strengthen the core. Having a strong stabilizing core is the start to having a well-adjusted, emotionally-regulated child. This is why nature is important for all of us and especially for our little ones as they struggle to make sense of emotions.
SSP: What does the 2020/2021 school year look like for your preschool at this time?
It’s been quite a roller coaster to say the least. We’ve really seen many families struggle economically, emotionally and physically. We’ve made difficult decisions which at the core, was about having a school to return to once the -stay-at-home orders were lifted. We’re proud to report that we are fully enrolled. We have our families to thank for that. We’ve seen that our hard work throughout the year really bore fruit - our community held fast and supported one another. It was really the most challenging time I've ever had to face as a businessperson - in large and small business. This year we will focus on the social-emotional well being of our children and families as well as augment our all weather nature-based play. Nature is healing so we look forward to spending days in the sun and the rain.
SSP: Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for those of us looking to start up our own small business?
I think any successful small business owner will tell you that you have to have perspective, perseverance and patience. I think the obvious will always hold true of course - you have to be organized, have a strong understanding of your market or industry, and understand people. Running a small business is about problem-solving but also the understanding that you are serving several masters when coming up with the solution. You have to be client-centered in your decision - making those decisions should also serve the business and it’s longevity. I would strongly advise taking an entrepreneurial course. Many area colleges offer them at low cost.
You have to ask yourself the tough questions - what are you willing to sacrifice? Time with family? Income potential? I stay focused on what I’ve gained instead- the flexibility to be there for my son, to build a community of families and to extend the same parent experience I had when navigating those early years. I wouldn’t change a thing. Every obstacle was a chance to learn and grow. And even now, after this unbelievably trying and stormy year, I still see the rainbows.
To learn more about Brooklyn Sandbox, go to http://brooklynsandbox.com/.