A Class of Their Own:

Life in a Quarantine Classroom

By Maya Cooper
Illustration by Tara Johnson

Some days, when I’m fighting with the alarm clock to wake up, I remember those painful mornings in high school when my mom would furiously come into my room to wake me up at 7:15 am. It always felt like the worst timing. As someone who actually enjoyed school once I got there, I hated waking up, getting dressed, and rushing to beat the bell.

Now, I try to imagine being in school during a pandemic, wondering how on earth these students and teachers maintain a sense of normalcy, routine, and motivation to learn? Those same early-morning wake-up calls probably hit different when you’re getting dressed to stay in the house and log into your virtual classes. No more rushing to school, chatting with your friends before splitting up to head to first period. And remember that smell of coffee on your teachers’ breath? Gone—at least for a while. 

Isn’t it wild the things we wanted to change and avoid have now become the things we miss? 

As an Event Producer at Team Epiphany, I’m constantly looking at innovation in the virtual and live events space, but I can’t ignore how educators, too, are harnessing creativity and honing their own skills to host engaging gatherings for their students in an attempt to keep them on track.

Education Emergency

Fred Sinchi—Mr. Sinchi to his students—has been teaching in New York City schools for 11 years. Currently a Spanish teacher at Manhattan/Hunter Science High School on the Upper West Side and an aspiring administrator, he says he’s seen a lot during his time in the system, but never something like this.

It was early March when Mr. Sinchi was informed that all classes would shift to remote learning the very next week. Fortunately, he had decided to begin the daunting task of scanning in all of his physical documents when he first heard the news of the coronavirus, so when he and his colleagues only had a week to pivot, he was ahead of the game.

In fact, according to NPR and experts in education in emergencies, the world has never seen a school shut down on this scale where many are likening it to the impacts of Hurricane Katrina, which took students years to recover from.

Doug Harris, a researcher at Tulane University says it took two full school years for returning students in New Orleans to fully recover their lost learning. Harris says that what hurt these kids' learning wasn't just the interruption in class time, the economic impact and emotional trauma were just as important.

All of these factors—especially social dislocation and economic uncertainty—apply in spades to the coronavirus situation, according to Harris. So, he says, we should expect something similar in terms of recovery time. "The social and economic situation always bleeds into the school.”

Inside the Virtual Classroom

Teachers all over the country are designing their new digital classrooms and revising curriculums. Alisha Martin, a High School Algebra teacher in Columbus, Ohio, has pushed homework deadlines to 11:59 pm to give students time to complete their work. “Some of my kids are sharing laptops and iPads with their parents or siblings and can’t get online until later in the day. Others aren’t focused at the early hours—I think this is a time when flexibility and compassion is super important.”

Some of my kids are sharing laptops and iPads with their parents or siblings and can’t get online until later in the day. Others aren’t focused at the early hours—I think this is a time when flexibility and compassion is super important.

Ms. Martin has likewise become known for her highly engaging social media challenges. A couple weeks ago she organized a Verzuz beat battle challenge between a couple of her most lively students to which over 250 of their classmates tuned in.

“There’s always a method to the madness,” she says about why she creates TikToks and Verzuz challenges sometimes unrelated to the curriculum. “I plan a lot of fun, engaging activities because when this is all said and done, that’s what they’ll remember and these seemingly silly moments we engage in 10% of the time will ultimately get them to invest in the subject matter the other 90%.”

Many schools are recommending teachers use Google Classroom and Google Hangouts for video conferencing, others prefer Zoom. But with all of these digital bells and whistles come more risks of privacy and abuse. Some students have been “Zoom Bombing” sessions by using pornographic or anti-semitic imagery as virtual backgrounds and prior to secure links and password-protected conferences, students were dropping into other classes and causing a scene. There has also been an increase in cyberbullying that teachers are fighting daily.

“We have to access our kids differently now and change the way we interact with them and their families,” says Sinchi. “We host classes on Zoom so we can see their faces, and have ‘office hours’ via Hangouts, but establishing respect in the classroom—even outside of the school walls—is what actually discourages them from acting up, not through scolding or punishment.”

It may also be that many older teachers are at a disadvantage during this time. They’re typically not as tech-savvy so changing up the teaching format and turning to full-on digital learning almost literally overnight presents a steeper challenge. “There are still several teachers who rely on tests to keep their students engaged and weed out those who aren’t paying attention,” says Sinchi.

But the newer generation of educators disagrees with that method, especially now, when it has become harder than ever to prevent students from cheating. Speaking of tests, the New York State’s Regents Exams have been canceled for 2020 and possibly even 2021. “Unfortunately, there was not a contingency plan in place for these standardized tests so canceling them seemed the fairest,” explained Sinchi, who also sits on the board and helps develop the Spanish portion of the exam.

“AP exams for college boards are still happening however, but that raises the question of how accurate these scores are going to be when colleges receive them. As teachers, we’re just doing what we can and putting our faith in the DOE for the things we can’t control.” 

We’re All Learning

As a single person with no kids, I feel for my friends and colleagues with young ones in school. Several hats off to you. Your patience amazes us. I admittedly get a kick out of hearing tales of remote learning plight and which kid forgot to wear pants to his Zoom class, but in all seriousness, it can’t be easy to play parent AND teacher so we thank you for rising to the occasion. While some states are allowing students to go back to school in a modified format, New York City and Los Angeles have no immediate plans to do so. Stay strong, everyone. Your children and their teachers and depend on it.︎