On the Frontlines: The Virtual Teaching Experience

It’s 8 o’clock on a Thursday morning and Ms. Rivas is ready to teach her 24 first graders—through Google Classroom, the platform that the New York City Department of Education has been using to continue the teaching experience from home for nearly a month now.  Rivas teaches in one of the 27 public schools of her district in Brooklyn, a community of mostly Latinos.

City public schools closed due to the coronavirus on March 18. More than 1 million students are attending class remotely, and as Mayor Bill de Blasio announced April 10, will continue to do so for the rest of the academic year. Governor Andrew Cuomo was less certain, so who knows, but for now more than 75,000 teachers in the five boroughs are working from home.

How it’s all working is still in question, but what Rivas, one of 1,318 teachers in her district, is experiencing sheds some light on how it’s playing out in the city. (She asked that NYCityLens not use her full name or the name of her school.) 

Rivas has made her living room an improvised classroom. In front of the laptop that the education department provided, she logs in and starts sending the first post of the day. Behind her is the improvised whiteboard on her wall.  Here she gives Spanish and mathematics lessons to her 24 students.

Rivas talked to NYCityLens about her virtual teaching experience in the time of coronavirus:

Photo courtesy of Ms. Rivas


How has it been working with Google Classroom so far?

Google Classroom is a very easy platform to navigate because it is like using Facebook’s timeline. I write a post and the children can read it, just like friends on Facebook will read posts. So the children see the work posted on the classroom stream and they access the work from there, they read the directions clearly and go about their day doing their work. The only part that has been challenging is doing virtual calls because a lot of the students do not know how to turn on the microphones.  So there was a lot of feedback coming from different houses and we just had to practice that.

How is the teaching from home dynamic?

Even though the classes are virtual, I still have them watching me give math lessons using my whiteboard. I still have them writing at home as if it was in the classroom.

For example, today, because I want them to use their hands, I gave them an assignment to write about a specific pet and they had to write everything they know about that pet, describe it.  I ask them to write it and take a picture of their written work.

When it comes to doing presentations, they had to teach us what pet they wrote about, so they get onto our video call and tell us about their pets.

What are the challenges you are facing?

It is double the work. Regularly, I am in school by 8 a.m. and finish class at 2:30. I stay in school to prepare for the next day until 4 p.m. but now I still get messages at 9 o’clock at night. Most of the time I do not get to start preparing for the next day until after 10 p.m.

Because I teach one day in English and the next day in Spanish, I do video calls multiple times a week. I also need to make sure they are learning mathematics seeing me on the board.

Are parents helping?

Yes, they are. Most parents are nearby when we are doing the video calls, a lot of the times I am teaching the parents too and when they don’t know what to do, they always reach out. I get text messages all day.

This environment has connected us so much. This is the first time in seven years of teaching that I have so much parent involvement from day one. They have a question every day and even though it is time-consuming; I also see that they want to help me, and I appreciate that.

Have you had to switch your schedule?

I have created a visual schedule so that my students can keep to the schedule and do their work for different subjects. Each specialist in the school has their own Google Classroom so when the kids have gym class, their instructor has their time and the kids must log in to that class.

How do you keep track of attendance?

I keep track of their participation. Once they log in, I put a question on the screen and once I receive their answers is when I know who is in class and who is not. But because some students were still having issues logging in, I was not getting the full attendance until this week that more students got the tablets. I feel in two weeks I will see full attendance.

Has students’ behavior changed with virtual learning?

I would say some of them can complete all their work and I feel it’s because they have their parents helping them more at home.

I have also seen a lack of logging in and getting to class from those students whose parents are still working, they have to wait for their parents to log in to their computers or use their phones or simply help them working and understanding the lessons and assignments.

Have you seen emotional distress?

They do not mind being at home, but I have to say that the first day we had the video call and they saw my face and their friends they were all so happy to see each other. The fact that they can see each other makes their day.

The first week, I was getting a lot of messages from the kids saying that they missed me, but now I feel they are getting used to this and they are enjoying their time with their parents too.

What are you going to teach during spring break?

Because this is a week that they were not supposed to have class our focus is more on doing family activities. I will have them singing, doing dances, painting and writing some special notes or letters to their parents and friends. We are planning to do video calls to see how they are doing and have them enjoy while learning something different.

How is the Department of Education monitoring your work?

The directives have access to all the classes so sometimes they send a message to the whole class to see how they are doing. The kids love that a lot.

We also have weekly meetings with our supervisors analyzing issues with the students such as the fact that some are still not connecting at specific times and how we can help get them connected.

Our main priority now is whether the student and the family are safe and healthy and after that, we talk about academics.

What has been a positive impact of the virtual learning experience?

I feel it’s the fact that parents now understand much more about the work we teachers do daily and because they also have to help their children, they appreciate us more. I believe this pandemic situation has taught us all to appreciate life in general, the people in their different professions and occupations, our health, and our families. I receive so many thank you messages from parents and we are much more connected because of this situation. They understand my struggle as a teacher, and I understand because I am also a mom and parents want the best for their child.

What have you learned from this experience?

This has taught me to be more flexible. It is ok if they send their work at 11 p.m. because what matters to me at this point is knowing that they are doing their work. Every kid has a different circumstance at home.

I have a lot of faith that we will be back in the classroom. I miss my students, I miss their hugs, their paintings, I miss seeing them learning and growing. I miss them telling me: “Ms. Rivas, I love you.”