Masked Middle Schoolers Return to the Classroom

New York City teachers welcome students back for the first time in three months

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Desks spaced six feet apart at Jose Celso Barbosa Middle School in East Harlem (Photo courtesy of Chloe Diamond)

On February 24, Chloe Diamond returned to her classroom at East Harlem’s Jose Celso Barbosa Middle School for the first time since November. The seventh and eighth grade English as a new language teacher found a space frozen in time. On top of her filing cabinet sat a coffee mug with a Christmas bear. Her black suede flats lay knocked-over on the floor. She had not worn these shoes since her school shifted to remote learning in the fall.

“It was very, very surreal,” said Diamond by phone on Monday. Returning to a classroom in this stalled state was reminiscent of entering her classroom in September when she found notes from March 13. “It was very spooky.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio closed New York City public schools on November 19 after the city’s seven-day testing average reached a 3% COVID-19 positivity rate. Middle schools across the city quickly transitioned to remote learning. Nearly three months later, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza announced middle schools would reopen for in-person learning on Thursday, February 25. As the teachers and students stepped into once familiar classrooms, they couldn’t help but feel a little disoriented.

Yuriko Gray, an English as a new language teacher at Boerum Hill School for International Studies in Brooklyn returned to her classroom on Wednesday and was welcomed by a new sound: there was a HEPA filter in every room. The smell of fresh paint filled the space as she looked over the sparse room equipped with bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

“My first instinct was to open the windows immediately,” said Gray, “Clean off all the surfaces, plug in the computer, make sure the smart boards were working.”

Triangular desk modules – white with little speckles of grey – were pushed together to create quadrilateral desks. These pieces of furniture were dusty, and in some cases still harbored small liquid patches from student lunches consumed in the fall.

Sanitation stations set up next to classroom entrances and the spacing of furniture signaled pandemic times. But creating a safe space for growing teens is tough in New York City’s smaller classrooms.

Forte Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Queens has rearranged auxiliary rooms, a multipurpose lunch space, and the library – in addition to standard classrooms – to accommodate the required six-plus feet boundary between each student.

“The space is pretty sparse. There would usually be twice as many desks and chairs in pods of six,” said Graham Browne, Forte Prep’s founder and executive director Thursday. “Part of our learning is social development, having students sit in circular pods shoulder to shoulder, looking at each other, helping each other.” Now the students are isolated at their own tables, which makes the classroom experience a little different.

On Thursday morning, Diamond’s students, underneath their required masks, seemed upbeat after three months of learning from home.

“I was excited because if you’re a teacher, you’re not in it for the pay or occupational prestige, you’re in it because you love being around kids,” said Diamond. “I feel like I’m always excited to be in the same physical space as them because they are so funny and goofy.”

But the back-to-school vibe was slightly different than returning from winter break or summer vacation. After a year of bouncing between remote and in-person learning, New York middle schoolers are facing an adjustment period.

“The first days back are always a little bit nerve-wracking for students,” said Browne. “They are excited to see their friends and be in the building but they are also kind of hesitant to speak as much and are still trying to navigate the space.” Questions of whether they are safe and OK to be in an enclosed space with their peers are very much top of mind for students.

And in-person learning looks a lot different than it did pre-pandemic. Students are still in front of computers and tablets, but they might be engaging with teachers who may physically be in a different classroom, or even leading class from home.

Diamond, for example, oversees five students in her classroom as they engage with a teacher a few rooms away. “In terms of instruction, I support the students if they are having technology issues, if they need guidance with time management,” she said. “If a student wants to look at their phone I say ‘let’s do 20 minutes on this activity and then take a brain break.’” Physically being in the same space helps Diamond keep her students motivated.

Graham said students at Forte Prep are also participating in remote classes and many of their teachers are still teaching from home. “Just taking class from inside the school building instead of participating from a bedroom or somewhere in their house or a friend’s house eliminates distractions,” he said. “And seeing other students doing the same thing — it’s been a great motivator in helping students to stay focused.”

One priority for Gray is getting more reading materials into her students’ hands. Because students cannot share books, she faces a new challenge. “I’m making as many hard copies as possible, doing a lot of photocopying,” she said. Creativity is vital in this relatively new teaching environment and Gray is toying with the idea of distributing photocopied books, pencils, and markers in plastic baggies with students’ names clearly marked on the outside.

Sanitation Station

A sanitation station at the entrance of Chloe Diamond’s classroom (courtesy of Chloe Diamond)

Forte Prep did not re-open until Monday and the building was noticeably colder for Browne who reported to his office regularly throughout the shutdown. The front door was propped open allowing students and a chilly draft to pass through, into the second floor, and on to the main area of the building. “It was a sensation I hadn’t felt in quite a long time!”

But this wasn’t the only change. Browne noticed his students looked a bit different as well. The cuffs of their grey chino uniform pants just barely reached their ankles. Their dark green sweatshirts stretched over the required polo shirts that were just a tad too snug.

“These are the kinds of things a parent would be observing and monitoring, but since they hadn’t been in the building – some of them since last March, many since November – it had been a really long time since they had to go outside and have anyone see their pants,” said Browne. “I was definitely struck by that.”

“Middle schoolers grow so quickly,” said Diamond. “But when you haven’t seen them for three to six months, they grow so much. Some students are unrecognizable! If we were with them every day we’d be used to it, but it was a shock.”

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