Lehman prof sets example for the city’s public schools


It hasn’t taken long for things to settle into a new — if temporary — reality not just around the world, but closer to home, as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 moves its way through.

That reality is, mostly, receiving a lot of emails about canceled events. Purim parties, political protests, book clubs and community dinners have all been postponed or called off all together. Many parents are suddenly finding themselves home with their children as schools close.

Since the first week of March, nearly every private school in the area has closed physical campuses, at least until the end of March. Some have moved to online classes and will reassess at the end of the month. 

All three of the local colleges have moved online, although only one — the College of Mount Saint Vincent — had a student test positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

It’s not easy, though. Some facilities at Manhattan and Lehman have stayed open for student use. The food bank at Lehman, for example, along with its wellness center and computer labs have all stayed open to students as the school transitions to distance and digital learning, which is expected to start March 19.

There were a few days where social media was overrun with students and faculty across the SUNY and CUNY systems calling for schools to close. Hash tags calling to “close CUNY” and “close the schools” popped up all over Twitter as private schools like Columbia and New York universities moved to online-only classes.

On March 11, after a student at John Jay College in Manhattan tested positive for the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all CUNY and SUNY schools would temporarily stop classes, with distance learning replacing physical classroom time until the end of the semester in May.

“I was just kind of here watching, I just had a feeling that this was headed our way,” said Lehman professor Stuart Chen-Hayes. “I know this is coming.”

Finding a way through

Chen-Hayes was in an interesting position. His husband is Taiwanese, so the family is tuned in to Chinese and Taiwanese media. Chen-Hayes himself has focused on more local coverage of the virus, especially in the weeks before the first New Yorker tested positive.

He teaches courses in school counselor education, and many of his students have been off-campus working to complete internships.

“I thought, I really should broach this, because it feels to me like this is coming,” Chen-Hayes said. “So we took part of the class, and I said, you should talk with your sites and your site supervisors about the likelihood of going online if and when — but probably when — schools close.”

Chen-Hayes’ students mostly work in Bronx schools, which closed down Monday. Because of that, they discussed how to move to online counseling if possible, or even if his students and their students could send letters back and forth if the technology wasn’t available.

When it comes to actual class time, however, there isn’t a lot Chen-Hayes will have to change, as he’s already pretty heavily into the virtual space.

 “All of our classes are hybrid,” he said. “There’s always been an online component to every one, it’s been that way for four or five years.”

Chen-Hayes’ classes might be in a stronger position than others. They used teleconferencing and similar apps like Zoom — software he says his students are quite comfortable using.

Zoom, a sort of video conference call, has been the go-to online platform for some schools as they shift online — including SAR Academy and SAR High School. They even hosted a Zoom bar mitzvah for one student, officiated by SAR Academy principal Binyamin Krauss.

One SAR parent dealing with quarantined students and online schooling said the schools were doing a “fantastic job” and “being extremely thoughtful and responsive and prudent.”

Even before the closure, SAR’s tech team was preparing for the possibility of online classes by ordering headsets and organizing Zoom accounts, said Jessica Haller, a city council candidate and SAR parent.

A digital connection

Lehman’s previous use of digital learning meant that even professors and staff who were less familiar had support teams to work through setting up their classes, Chen-Hayes added.

“Our folks are very much ready to go,” he said. “The issue is, how are individual districts and how is the DOE and individual private schools handling it. That is the core, key question for everyone right now.”

In the weeks leading up to CUNY and SUNY moving to online instruction, Chen-Hayes took to Twitter to make some recommendations.

Moving as much online as possible was key, he said, as was not penalizing students who might struggle with new arrangements.

“I can run a class with a Google Drive. You don’t have to have access to a fancy program,” Chen-Hayes said. “There are ways that you can still learn.”

CUNY has relatively few residence halls, so pushing students out of their rooms wasn’t as much of a concern as it was at other schools. But keeping dining facilities and the food pantry open — and maybe expanding access to deliver food to students in need — were priorities at the top of Chen-Hayes’ list.

“The food service should stay open, and we should be doing grab-and-go,” he said. “And if they can’t get outside at all, then use the buses to deliver the food.”

On Sunday evening, the mayor did just that. All city public schools closed on March 16, and will stay shuttered until at least April 20. 

During that time, students will take part in distance learning, and can stop by any public school — not just their own — to pick up grab-and-go breakfast and lunch between 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

While his own students weren’t necessarily at risk, — nor were the young children attending middle schools and elementary schools in the area — closing schools and reducing community spread was still important to protect older or immuno-compromised people the students live with or interact with every day in the city.

“It’s the folks who are least protected by age or by immune system that are getting the sickest and that are dying,” Chen-Hayes said. “So we want to support everybody at this point, in the best way possible.”

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coronavirus, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, CUNY, SUNY, Lehman College, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Stuart Chen-Hayes, Kirstyn Brendlen