a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Since March, 2020 when the pandemic closed her South Bronx high school for in-person learning, 17-year-old Karisma Turner has had a hard time keeping to a normal schedule. A junior at the time, Karisma had plans to apply to college, and she was intent on finishing her coursework even though she found remote learning stressful and missed getting help directly from her teachers.
“I was still making it in the beginning… to all of my virtual classes and stuff.” But being disconnected from her teachers and friends and being trapped at home were all too much for her and she fell behind.
“I just gave up. I just couldn’t get up and do anything.”
Karisma began sleeping all day and staying up all night eating, a pattern that almost a year into the pandemic, she still found hard to shake. Of the last few months of her junior year, she said: “Eating. Gaining weight. That is literally all I was doing… I was just mad sad.”
When I spoke to Karisma in July over Zoom, she was hoping school would be at least partially in-person in the fall. She was anxious about starting her senior year behind in her work.
“It’s just, like, the hardest time. I’m going into my senior year,” she said, adding that she didn’t think there would be a prom or a graduation. Of her dreams of completing school and applying to college, she said in the past tense, “This meant a lot to me.”
At this point in the pandemic, you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that remote learning has been a colossal failure for children nationwide. By late spring of 2020, educators were sounding alarm bells about students falling weeks and even months behind in their classes. Absenteeism and lack of engagement were rampant on Zoom. By summer there was a full-blown mental health crisis among children and adolescents across the US, with mental health related emergency room visits in these age groups increasing by 31%. Since then, things have only gotten worse. Many children who were a month or two behind in June of last year are now failing out of their grades entirely. Educators say that many will never be able to catch up.
For students like Karisma, students with few resources who attend underfunded schools and who are mostly Black and brown, remote learning has been disproportionally damaging. “Distance learning” operates on the assumption that school can be moved online and still serve its most basic function; that learning can take place as well when one is alone in front of a screen as it does when one is united in community with peers, teachers, mentors and guidance counselors. We know this assumption to be wrong and how badly Zoom School is failing our children despite the best efforts of teachers and school administrators. Yet, a year into the pandemic many classrooms remain empty; students check in and out of Zoom class, often with the camera off making it impossible for teachers to know if students are paying attention or if they are there at all; and we continue to go along with the narrative of Zoom as substitute for school even as our kids fall irretrievably behind and suffer from anxiety and depression at alarming rates.
Even if it were not the case that for many children across the country schools are the only reliable source of internet access, food and vital social services, learning does not take place in a vacuum. It requires community, support, motivation, and a sense of one’s self-worth, none of which can be cultivated meaningfully or consistently over Zoom. This is true of all students regardless of socioeconomic status. But for students who are struggling with poverty or homelessness, or are English Language Learners or have learning differences, it is catastrophically so.
The Community School for Social Justice, where Karisma is now in her senior year, sits on a rather desolate block in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx that runs alongside the Major Deegan Expressway. The entrance to the school building is a nondescript door opening onto a bare lobby with a security desk manned by the NYPD.
The South Bronx is in the poorest congressional district in the nation, with forty percent of its residents living in poverty (as of 2017). Ninety-three percent of students at CSSJ are on free or reduced lunch, and all but one percent identify as Latino or Black.
As was true in the Before Times, most students at CSSJ don’t have WiFi at home, or computers. Amos Margulies who teaches 11th and 12th grade English at the school told me that homework is often done on students’ phones, that they sometimes run out of data before the end of the month, and as Mr. Margulies says: “It’s hard to do your best work on your phone.”
As at many other underfunded public schools across the nation, it falls to the teachers at CSSJ to raise funds to purchase laptops for classroom use. But there aren’t enough of them for every student, and they aren’t allowed to take them home. Mr. Margulies and his fellow teachers at the school have tried to create a space after school for students to do homework, but parents are often reluctant to allow their children to stay late at school because of the neighborhood; many students have jobs or responsibilities at home such as caring for younger siblings; and even if students are able to navigate these realities, being at school after hours is not something they are used to. Because of lack of resources, CSSJ has almost no after school activities; no music program, a few clubs, and just a handful of sports. It doesn’t even have its own gym (the basketball team practices at a nearby school). Mr. Margulies has tried to entice students to stay after school for SAT prep, efforts that found moderate success only when a colleague secured funding for pizza and donuts so students wouldn’t have to leave the building and try to get back in (security doesn’t always let students back in the building once they have left).
So, many students leave CSSJ after school and go to homes with no laptops or reliable internet.
While the school lacks technology and resources, it is rich in community. “Our principal [Jaime Guzman] always says that relationships are the bread and butter of our school,” says Mr. Margulies. On the website Donors Choose, where teachers can set up donation pages for their classrooms, he writes: “We are a small, tight-knit community in the South Bronx. Students call us by our first names, and each teacher has a small advisory group called ‘Family Group’ that we follow all four years until graduation.”
I first met Mr. Margulies at CSSJ when I ran a theater residency there as part of my work at a nonprofit theater company. As an arts educator, I have been in many classrooms in all kinds of schools and juvenile detention centers, running similar types of programs in which students are taught to create original short plays or scenes. In my experience, much of the energy in these classrooms is spent on trying to coax the students to put their self-consciousness aside in order to take a leap into the creative unknown and to put themselves out there in ways that seem vulnerable. But, in Mr. Margulies’ 11th grade classroom the willingness of the students to jump in and engage with a process completely unknown to them, and to do it collaboratively and openly, was striking.
On the first day, we split the class into groups, and the volume in the cramped classroom rose with the sound of thirty 11th graders talking and laughing. They were tasked with creating short scenes based on issues of their choosing, such as mass incarceration and gender discrimination. The desks and chairs were jammed up against the walls, and books and jackets lay in jumbled piles all over the floor. On the walls were Playbills from Broadway plays; Hamilton; The Humans; Come From Away.
In one group, Fatou, a girl in a purple hijab, joked around with a boy named Moisés before Mr. Margulies came to check on them.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Are we, like, supposed to act this out, like a play?” asked a boy with ripped jeans, a red hoodie, and earbuds dangling from his ears.
Mr. Margulies said that was the idea. But, he added: “Don’t think too much right now about the result. Just explore and see where it goes, OK?”
It is a sign of how trusted Mr. Margulies is that his students would follow him unguardedly in this way. He says, “They know me. They trust me. When I tell them to apply to [a] program… or when I’m texting them five times a day, they’re not rolling their eyes at me, except to make fun of me.” Because they trust him, they engage readily in unfamiliar activities without the skepticism prevalent in their age group. But perhaps it is partly because he offers these types of hands-on experiences, precisely the kind of program that cannot happen during the pandemic, that he has gained their trust.
Mr. Margulies’ days often start at 5am and go into the night. In normal times, he takes his students to Broadway plays one Wednesday a month, and then to pizza afterwards to discuss the work. Recently, along with other teachers at CSSJ, he bought gift bags of clothes and food and sent them to families at the school that are struggling during the pandemic. Last June when graduation was canceled, teachers gave the graduates a drive-by ceremony by going to each of their homes and handing out gifts and diplomas.
This kind of community support is crucial, says Margulies, “largely because a lot of our students are not intrinsically motivated by things like… getting good grades and going to a good college… The architecture of a life around academics really allows you to define your self-worth based on your accomplishments in school… But a lot of our students struggle with school and therefore, what else do they have to base their self worth on when they walk into that building?”
Whereas in a better-resourced school, students might shine in extracurricular activities, Margulies says “You can’t be the star of the school play if we don’t have a school play.”
How, then, is it possible to measure the devastation of moving to online instruction at a school like CSSJ, where the connections between students and teachers are everything, where eye contact between teacher and student can contain a world of understanding, where what motivates a student to show up in the building every day may have little to do with academics and everything to do with the people?
There is a special closet at CSSJ that is stocked with supplies such as deodorant and toothpaste for homeless and financially struggling students. Entire systems to support homeless students are based upon the fact that they will report to one location. Now that school has moved online, many of these students have simply dropped off the radar. It is reported that since the pandemic, one in four known homeless students nationwide cannot be found by their school districts. Students living in homeless shelters often have no access to the internet or the devices needed to log on. Most of New York City’s four hundred and fifty homeless shelters lack WiFi for residents, and the New York City Department of Education has struggled with plans to distribute WiFi enabled iPads to the students who need them.
Karisma said her school-issued iPad stopped connecting to the internet after a while, and that she had to connect to her phone’s hotspot in order to join her classes.
As Mr. Margulies is quick to point out, many of the problems in the school community have always been there. People associate the South Bronx with “stuff like gangs and poverty. But it also comes with stuff that people don’t know about the South Bronx, which is a lot of resilience and strength.”
He says, “We do have students who are in homeless shelters and struggling to even gain access to food and technology to do their work, and then we also have students who are the most creative and resourceful kids I’ve ever met who are finding ways to be really successful, even in spite of this pandemic.”
Sherley Blanco’s is one such story. I spoke with Sherley in July over Zoom from her father’s home in San Juan, Puerto Rico where the electricity was spotty and she kept recharging her phone on portable chargers while we were speaking. Sherley attended CSSJ in her junior year, having just moved from Puerto Rico speaking almost no English. She remembers her Family Group at the school as particularly supportive. They met daily to talk about whatever concerns came up and to help with academics. Her Family Group leader “tried hard to understand me… she even started to learn Spanish in order to communicate with me,” Sherley says.
Because her mother did not approve of Sherley’s boyfriend at CSSJ, she moved her to the Women’s Leadership Academy in the Bronx for her senior year. When the pandemic hit, Sherley was a top student with plans to attend John Jay College of Criminal Justice and become an immigration lawyer. Sherley’s mother was in the hospital with an illness (not Covid) and then her stepfather contracted the Covid-19 virus and was also hospitalized. Sherley was at home alone taking care of her two younger siblings, ages 6 and 9. But since she was also a minor, her siblings moved in with a relative and Sherley, three months short of graduation, was forced to move back to Puerto Rico with her father’s family.
The high school Sherley moved to in San Juan normally doesn’t allow students to enter school in the middle of the academic year, but they made an exception for her because of her excellent grades. Without reliable internet or electricity in her father’s home, a lasting fallout from recent hurricanes, Sherley often had to drive three hours away to the home of a family friend in a wealthier area in order to complete her online school work.
In her free time, Sherley set up a borrowed laptop at her grandmother’s beauty salon in order to help people in the community apply for government Covid relief funds. According to Sherley, many people had no idea how to navigate the system, so she saw a way to help.
“The government gave this help to people who have no resources. These people have no voice. They cannot speak for themselves… They have no idea how to access [help],” she told me. “So I feel that I am really helping them and I feel that is something good.”
Sherley figures she guided at least three hundred people through the application process.
Despite all the disruptions, moving away from her new community, her boyfriend and her second school in two years, despite the lack of reliable internet and the lengths she had to go to join class and study, Sherley graduated valedictorian of the school she attended entirely virtually and for only three months. However, since she was no longer a resident of New York State, tuition at John Jay College was now out of reach and she planned to enroll in the Borough of Manhattan Community College and then transfer to John Jay once her New York State residency has been reestablished.
“I have learned to adjust myself to hard situations,” Sherley said.
Back in the Bronx, Sherley’s boyfriend, Rodolfo Rodriguez, had recently been laid off from his job delivering food for a restaurant. When I spoke with him in July on Zoom, he was in the kitchen where his family was cooking and talking behind him. At one point his baby brother came over crying and Rodolfo bounced him on his lap as we talked. Rodolfo had just started selling Mexican food on Southern Boulevard with his mother. He had used some of his savings to buy a table and supplies; his mother did the cooking and he took care of everything else. After just three days of selling, Rodolfo said it was going well, and he hoped to make enough money to visit Sherley in Puerto Rico for her birthday in August.
Rodolfo was alone among his friends in that he didn’t mind online school, he said, because it was less distracting.
“It was just straightforward. We come in. We talk to the teacher. She tells us what to do. Like, we don’t waste time on people talking and all that. We just go straight to the work. That’s what I liked. It gave me more focus. It gave me more control over the situation.”
Control, it turns out, is important to Rodolfo.
“I don’t have control over this Covid-19. What I do have control over is my studies, what I want to do, things like that.” He likes selling food with his mother, he says, because “I always like to be my own boss.”
With plans to attend Borough of Manhattan Community College with Sherley in the fall, Rodolfo said he wanted to be a lawyer one day and to open his own restaurant.
Last spring when Karisma was at her lowest, she woke up one morning having failed to turn in any assignments for two weeks straight. “I was just, you know what? I’m going to get up, ‘cause this bed is stopping me from getting up. So, I’m gonna just get up, change my settings, and I’m going to sit down and I’m going to do the work.” She ended up finishing all but two of her courses.
Karisma got her wish that senior year would start at least partially in person. CSSJ began the fall in a hybrid model, but went fully remote again when the city ordered all schools online after just eight weeks. Since then, elementary schools have reopened, and middle schools partially opened to some students in late February. As of this writing, NYC high schools plan to open to about a fifth of students by spring, after a full year of remote learning.
I spoke to Amos Margulies in December as the first semester was winding down. “When a lot of kids don’t have reliable internet access, the attendance drops to less than half. Today I had a class that only had five or six kids in it, even though there should have been closer to fifteen or twenty.”
And, for the students who do show up to class, it is challenging to stay focused.
“A lot of kids have tons of noise in the background because their families are blasting the TV,” says Margulies. “Or they have to go grocery shopping while they’re in class, or they’re helping their little brother with their school work and their online class at the same time. So everyone’s attention is split.”
Most wrenching, he says, is the “emotional roller coaster” of deciding whether or not to fail a student during the pandemic.
“How do you even justify failing a student when the student was attending before the pandemic and now has disappeared? And when you ask them, where are they? What’s going on? They’ll either say, I don’t really have good internet access, or I hate Zoom, or I’m too busy at home with other things. And what do we say? ‘Suck it up and deal with it?’ I mean, it’s so callous, you know? There are a lot of students who through no fault of their own are not able to get the work done right now.”
For these reasons, the NYC Department of Education has told teachers to mark such a student with an NX, which means the student didn’t pass, but didn’t fail either. It is meant to give the teachers an opportunity to find a way for the student to pass before it’s too late.
But the reality is that for most students in this situation, it is already too late.
“Everyone knows that these kids are not really learning anything if they do one or two assignments and yet that somehow has to justify passing an entire semester.” And what of the kids who are overcoming the obstacles and getting the work done? Is it then fair to pass everyone?
Whereas before the pandemic, these kinds of gut wrenching decisions would center on three or four students each semester, now it is half the students who face the prospect of failing out of the grade entirely.
“I don’t see a lot of kids coming out of the woodwork in a few months,” when classes can partially open in person again.
Asked what his biggest worry is for his students during this time, Mr. Margulies says: “I think the saddest situation, the worst case scenario, is that some really academically strong, talented students who had aspirations to go to college and to graduate from college, and often times the first in their family, they won’t be able to ever do that.”
Once a student fails to graduate on time, the likelihood that she will ever graduate diminishes greatly.
Margulies looks forward to taking his students to the theater again, and to being able to build community with the new 10th graders. As the pandemic has cracked open the reality of how systems work in our society to widen disparities, Margulies hopes that education and employment will be another area of reckoning. “We don’t have a lot of vocational training programs for young people who don’t love writing essays,” he said, “and we don’t have a lot of youth employment in our city.” He sees this moment holding the possibility of change.
Sherley returned to New York and enrolled in Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is living with Rodolfo, who also attends BMCC, and his family in the Bronx. When I spoke to her in December, she took the call on the stairway of the building where the reception was better, and where people passed by her on the steps with shopping carts and heavy boots. The call was still extremely glitchy, freezing and speeding up repeatedly, and I thought of what it must be like to do an entire year of school like this.
Sherley told me that college is harder than she thought it would be. All classes have been online and she misses having in person interactions with teachers. She remembers her time as Amos Margulies’ student at CSSJ and how she would spend extra time in his classroom just to talk to him. “Amos didn’t get a break from me,” she says. Her plans to transfer to John Jay are on hold for now.
Rodolfo and his mother stopped selling food on the street because they were not licensed.
Karisma is hoping to attend a school outside of New York City where she hopes to live in a dorm and have a “whole new fresh start.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Margulies and his colleagues at CSSJ continue to teach on Zoom, trying to find challenging and rigorous assignments for the students who want to be pushed, as well as “ low-stakes, fun, easy assignments,” for the struggling students that can “justify some sort of growth or engagement.”
Pushing through the “pandemic malaise” of the past few days – his own as well as his students’ – he had organized an awards show on Zoom for his students and “taken” them to a live Zoom play resulting in some good conversation afterwards. He was thrilled when one of his 11th graders helped the rest of the class understand a concept through simple and clear explanation. “It renewed my hope,” he said.
“But it doesn’t feel authentic,” he said of being so disconnected for so long.
“It feels like everyone is in on this joke,” he said. “And yet we all have to keep playing along.”
Laurie Lathem is an arts educator, writer, producer and director. She was the Director of the Moment Work Institute at Tectonic Theater Project, the Founding Creative Director of the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, and Artistic Director of the Virginia Avenue Project in Santa Monica, California, a theater arts organization serving struggling and underserved youth. Laurie has facilitated and led creative writing and playwriting workshops in prisons and juvenile detention facilities, as well as at Stanford University Continuing Studies Program, Pixar Animation Studios, Highways Performance Space and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She developed the acclaimed solo show by Fred Rochlin, Old Man in a Baseball Cap and directed it at the La Jolla Playhouse and Actors Theatre of Louisville. Laurie has contributed essays to several online and print publications and to the anthology Remembering: Oral History Performance (Palgrave MacMillan). She has numerous acting credits in film and TV.