Belabored Stories: Education at a Distance

Belabored Stories: Education at a Distance

If anything good can come of this massive experiment in remote teaching, a New York City teacher says, it should be “an end to the Silicon Valley fantasy that this is what school can be in the future.”

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Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at


New York City teachers had to fight to get the city’s public schools shut down—they took to the internet, the pages of major newspapers, and to their phones, organizing a sick-out. But the closing of the schools hasn’t meant an end to their work. Kevin Prosen is a middle school teacher in Queens and a member of MORE, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators within the United Federation of Teachers, and he’s been busy every day of the pandemic—and now the virtual education that teachers have been providing is expected to continue even over Passover, Easter, and what used to be spring break.

“The official reason coming from the Governor is that it will help with social distancing, because they believe that if teachers are not posting academic content on their Google classrooms and hosting their online classes, that students will violate the social distancing provisions and go outside and hang out in the park or on the street, and contribute to the spread of coronavirus,” Prosen explained. “So the official rationale is that, it’s going to both keep up with the fact that students are going to be losing some academic pacing because they’re not in school, but also to help support social distancing provisions.”

What’s happened since the school buildings were closed, Prosen noted, is the splitting up of schooling responsibilities. “The parent who normally would rely on the school to take care of their child during the day, is maybe stuck at home with them, or maybe the kid is stuck at home alone. And the teacher is able to provide the academic support but is at a distance, and therefore it’s really hard to take into account everything going on in that kid’s life remotely.”

Since some teachers are also parents, he noted, “they’re also on the hook for those child care responsibilities for their own children.” The doubled burden is putting added pressure on the students’ ability to do any kind of academic work.

The technology itself produces its own problems, he said.

It’s frustrating trying to do remote tech support for ninety different eleven year olds, when you’re not sitting there with them. Trying to make sure that those communication lines are open is a full-time job. And then many kids are sharing the necessary technology with siblings. So a household might have one computer, or it may have no computer, but the kids might have cell phones, or maybe they have a Chromebook they got from the school, but they’re sharing it. We’re finding that day-to-day participation is something that’s hard for kids to keep up with, and I have to find ways to make stuff accessible to them.

The expectations on the teachers right now border on the absurd. “There seems to be some confusion in the Department of Education where some principals are expecting, effectively, to recreate the school day. They’re creating bell schedules for kids to call into different classes at certain times. It’s unsustainable for students. And for teachers!”

What the teachers end up doing, Prosen said, is often more like social work, like casework, than teaching. “My first assignment was just to have kids write me a letter telling me how they’re doing,” he said. “Kids told me, ‘I’ve had someone in my family die from coronavirus.’ Or, ‘Someone in my family is sick.’ They’re trying to deal with trauma in addition to trying to balance these academic burdens.” In this situation, New York City is, he said, “removing the upcoming spring break and trying to plow ahead with rigorous academic instruction, as though there wasn’t a mass public trauma happening all around us, that involves us.”

And that doesn’t include the teachers’ own personal trauma and vulnerability to the virus. “A number of school employees have passed away,” Prosen said. “Everyone’s experiencing trauma right now. And the contempt that that’s being treated with by the city authorities is really insulting. I think there’s a lot of anger in the schools because of it.”

He continued:

The reason there was such a conflict over closing the schools in the first place is because the schools are already strained, having to be basically the only thread left in the social safety net for a lot of people. It wasn’t just where you got your education. It was where you got to see a nurse. It was where you got your nutritional or social needs met. It was the place you could go during the day to have all these various needs met. When you take that away, there’s literally nothing left. . . . It was because the schools have to strain to play all these different roles, and because the rest of the social safety net is so weak, that this became such an acute crisis.

If anything good can come of this massive experiment in remote teaching, Prosen said, it should be “an end to the kind of Silicon Valley fantasy that this is what school can be in the future. That you can just isolate someone’s academic instruction from considering the whole person, and their entire social context, and having institutions that cater to all of those aspects of somebody: their social needs; their physical needs.” It turns out, he said, that you can’t just post videos to YouTube, give kids a test, and expect them to learn. “I think this is a moment where certain corporate actors are going to try to use this as a sort of ‘shock doctrine’ moment to impose a lot of this technology on schools. But I also think when people encounter the reality of it, they will find out how unsatisfactory it is. I think you’ll find it being rejected, not only by educators, but also by parents.”

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.

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