Dr. Arshia Nishat took a look around and, despite her and her fellow physician husband working around the clock during a global pandemic, she made the decision to keep their kids fully remote for the 2020-21 school year.
“As a physician I was afraid,” Nishat said. “I saw a lot of my patients die, so for me staying alive was the criteria.”
Nishat would have considered keeping her kids home again this year had there been a remote option available.
“I got the girls vaccinated since they’re 12 and up, but I’m worried about the little one since they don’t all keep their masks on and don’t always listen,” Nishat said. “They don’t understand social distancing. What’s happening now is the younger children are getting COVID and giving it to people. I know some of my friends who are vaccinated got COVID because of the little ones.”
Born in India, Nishat moved to the United States 20 years ago. She grew up hearing about the impact of diseases from her grandmother, “how they used to have these pandemics and epidemics where the whole village would get wiped out, so it reminded me of that. We don’t know if there is going to be another wave. We don’t know whatever variant we could get.”
When the COVID-19 epicenter hit Westchester County hard in March 2020 and schools shut down for what was thought to be a week or two, but remained closed for the rest of the school year, Nishat’s children were a senior and eighth grader at Edgemont Junior/Senior High School, a pre-schooler and a 1-year-old.
The senior, Manaal Ahmed, missed out on all of the senior year activities and is now in college. Aleena Ahmed is now a sophomore, Faheem Shahid spent the start of his educational career in front of a computer and the little one is 2.5 years old.
“My biggest problem was the third one who started kindergarten fully remote,” Nishat said. “That was the biggest challenge. The older children were fine, but the hardest was the kindergartner because I had the 2-year-old who was running around disturbing him. The girls were home, but they couldn’t help their brother because they had their own school.”
Nishat was home as much as possible, but it was challenging to say the least. She had help from a friend who doesn’t speak English. Faheem ended up learning to read on his own, pretty much out of necessity.
“He was constantly crying about it, but what happened was within two or three months he just learned how to read and he was able to follow the instructions,” Nishat said. “He was kind of forced to learn to read.”
Sending Faheem to school in September was mixed emotions for Nishat. She was “sad” at how he had to start his education at Seely Place Elementary School.
“He is really enjoying his first time in school,” Nishat said. “I was really expecting him to cry and have some separation anxiety, but he was really happy to go to school.”
Aleena was initially unhappy about her parents’ decision to keep her home because she wanted to see her friends daily, but by staying remote at home she was more efficient with getting her schoolwork done and had more time after school to hang out with friends. “I ended up liking it a lot,” she said.
Some teachers did a better job with balancing virtual and in-person students than others, Aleena said, and she said it was harder for remote students to interact during class and for extra help.
When all students had the option to go back to school full time last year, Nishat didn’t want to disturb her children’s routine, in addition to her continued fear about the spread of the virus. She wrestled with pros and cons. She was “sad” for Faheem and knew that Aleena was missing out on the social life she needed as a teenager.
Aleena did go back at the tail end of the school year for a few weeks. “It was actually really fun to go back … because there wasn’t very much going on since it was the end of the year, which is why I went back,” she said. “It was nice to see how much everybody had changed since I’d last seen them. The boys grew taller and the girls changed their style. It was pretty crazy.”
This year Aleena has enjoyed the return to the nine-period, 40 minutes per period school day. It didn’t take long for her to get used to wearing a mask indoors all day, whereas last year face coverings had to be worn outdoors, too.
“Sometimes my ears will hurt at the end of the day, but I really don’t think it’s much of a problem,” Aleena said. “It’s like a habit by now and I’m not really bothered by it.”
Just like students had to adjust to remote learning, they had to readjust to being back in school. “I think all of them are struggling to get back into the routine of getting up on time and not having food around and having to wear the mask all day,” Nishat said. “I think they’re having a difficult time right now, even though they didn’t like remote schooling.”
Last school year, Edgemont had nine kindergartners, four first graders, three second graders, 12 third graders, six fourth graders, seven fifth graders, seven sixth graders, 14 seventh graders, 17 eighth graders, 19 freshmen, 18 sophomores and 11 juniors choose the fully remote option at the end of the school year. (Seniors had Senior Options projects and were not included in the tally.)
With more than 130 students returning to in-person learning, most of them for the first time in a year and a half, Edgemont had a plan of action in place to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.
Superintendent Dr. Victoria Kniewel and Dr. Michael Curtin, director of K-12 curriculum and instructional technology, gave a presentation called “Supporting Students’ Transition Back to School” to the Edgemont Board of Education on Sept. 1.
Curtin called it a “slightly more normal school year than last year” and focused on three questions in preparing to welcome students back to school:
What content/skills did students master and what did they miss during the 2020-21 school year?
How has the trauma and disruptions of the 2020-21 school year impacted our students’ capacity to return to “normal” schooling this year?
How do we support individual at-risk students, especially those who were fully remote for most of the 2020-21 school year?
Curtin said that the return would be an adjustment for “everyone,” though he noted, “Most students will be able to make the adjustment without intervention,” but he also said “a significant number” of students “will require assistance through a variety of interventions.”
All of them, however, are “resilient,” he said, adding, “It’s not all doom and gloom … We assume that last year students learned a lot, not just academic content, but in mindsets and skills and understandings they might not have developed in a different school year. Persistence, perseverance, problem-solving, learning how to advocate for yourself, learning how to organize yourself, learning how to seek help when you need it. A key assumption is that our kids are coming back with some things that they and we should be aware of, and more importantly proud of, and that will serve them well as we make this adjustment.”
Edgemont did some typical testing and added assessments for elementary school students to get a sense of where they stand. They were also helping teachers identify early on any gaps that might exist in learning, and having students feel connected, in addition to making sure their mental health needs are met.
“Most importantly of all we’re really emphasizing the importance of building a community in the classroom,” Curtin said. “Kids cannot learn if they don’t feel safe and secure and connected, and many of them have been disconnected in lots of different ways over the last 18 months.”
Remote students in particular were invited to campuses in August prior to the start of the school year and teachers were encouraged to identify students they thought might be “of concern” as they return.
Three boys in one house
Alejandra Martinez has two boys in Edgemont schools in fourth and first grades at Greenville Elementary School and one in pre-K. She is from Spain, while her husband is Dutch, and they moved from Singapore to Edgemont in July 2019.
“We had the option at one point to go back fully remote, but the kids preferred to stay home,” Martinez said.
Her now-first grader was fully remote for kindergarten and one of the things he noticed is that he never saw his teacher’s legs, so that was something he was looking forward to this school year, along with going to the gymnasium and library, and attending music class.
Martinez worked for many years, but is now a full-time mom and she said she “really enjoyed” having her kids home.
“I think having a lot of patience helps,” she said. “In my case teaching him how to read, even in English, which is not my mother tongue, was nice. It was fun and I really enjoyed it. I have a whiteboard at home and I liked teaching them. I was a financial analyst and a project manager before, not a teacher of elementary school.”
The kids got all the mom fixin’s with meals and snacks, but it wasn’t easy for mom juggling two in elementary school schedules and a preschooler who served as a major distraction. Plus their father is still working from home full time.
“At the beginning it was fully remote and then they moved to hybrid and then they offered fully in-person around April,” Martinez said. “Everything was so uncertain at the beginning, so for me the main reason was to give them a routine and a feeling of safety and protection [so] that they know what to expect.”
Being able to observe her kids’ habits when it came to school was also something Martinez found intriguing.
“Being right next to them really helped me to see how they reacted to the different teaching styles and to the different homework assignments,” she said. “I know them much better now after the fully remote year — how they are as students.”
Martinez credited the district with organizing and delivering a solid education that was “priceless.”
The purchase of some trampolines was also a key to survival.
“It was intense — I will not deny that,” Martinez said. “It was three boys, very active, but it was fun because sometimes my two other sons had meetings at the same time, but most of the time not, so one could play with the little one and then the other one. He was continuously playing. They made the stairs into a slide with pillows.
“I’m happy now that I have more time with [the youngest son] because it’s true that he got less attention last year because of all their meetings and homework. But he also had fun.”
Going back to school was certainly a celebration for the kids. “It was perfect,” Martinez said. “It seemed like the day before they were going to school. It went very, very smoothly.”
Three older boys in one house
Anju Ahmed was also armed with three boys the past 18 months, though much older. Rahman is a sophomore, Raheem an eighth grader and Abdullah Ahmed a sixth grader.
“I would have loved to put them back into school,” she said. “They need that social aspect, that face-to-face interaction. It was fully based on the virus. I didn’t think the numbers were low enough and the risk was higher.”
Even last month she was hesitant and would have preferred a hybrid option to ease them back in, but now she’s glad to see them in school.
“I thought it would be a really slow transition …” Anju said. “I thought we would have to meet up with a few teachers or counselors or whatnot, but it was surprisingly very smooth for all three of them — as if last year didn’t even occur at home — so it worked out really nice.”
While Rahman is “laser-focused,” the other two had a few more struggles with remote learning.
“When they had their breaks, all three of my kids would get together and I was always there trying to get this and that done,” Anju said. “I think it was good there was a lot of silver linings I got out of it. I was able to determine their study habits and focus on what needs to be done. I’m kind of glad; from a parent’s perspective I saw these are some areas of opportunity we can take on going forward, especially for my middle one, who wasn’t able to focus as much remotely.”
Rahman was in the middle of eighth grade when the pandemic hit and he felt like it was the home stretch of the year where he and his classmates would be preparing for finals. He remembers “two weeks at home just sitting there, no school, no nothing,” before the remote learning began. “It was weird because the classes were so short and there was minimal contact with the teachers,” he said.
Being fully remote as a freshman with nine regular periods each day was “difficult” for the remote kids, but “overall fine.” Rahman said, “It’s something to tell my grandkids.”
The main positive for him was catching up on his sleep, in addition to watching a lot of Netflix, picking up some new hobbies and all of the home-cooked meals.
Raheem missed out on the fun stuff as he graduated from Greenville Elementary School and moved up to the junior high, which were typically major celebrations and transitions. His biggest concern about heading to junior high as an eighth grader was “not knowing where any of the buildings were,” but it all worked out and he found his way around campus.
“I think I’m doing much better because I’m face to face with my teachers,” he said. “If I have questions I can ask and it’s much easier to focus because you’re not on a screen.”
That, and no YouTube and other distractions, which his mom may have caught him with when she was “always peeking into the room,” he said.
Abdullah hasn’t had a normal school year for his entire second half of elementary school from fourth through sixth grades.
“At first I was like, ‘Woohoo, a week off!’ and then I wasn’t sure how I would do and keep up with my studies since at home there are a lot of distractions for me,” he said, recalling March 2020. “I was able to keep up with my class and all the assignments, and I wasn’t falling behind or anything like that. I felt good about it.”
Staring at the screen for long stretches of time in fifth grade definitely took its toll, but Abdullah used the break time from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to reset himself. “I would sometimes go outside, take a walk or tend to my garden,” he said. “I found that very pleasing because it gave me a good break.”
Going back to school was a relief overall. “I felt really happy because I personally learn better face to face in-person,” Abdullah said. “At first I was scared and anxious how school would look. The first day the teachers were all there to help us find our classes, and first period they explained what school would look like. There was a huge ‘Welcome Back to School’ sign and that really helped with my confidence.”