For Rachel Warach's class, the 133rd morning of the first grade, numbered on a poster behind her, was similar to all previous mornings.
His Chicago students spent 15 minutes silently working on math problems and writing in their diaries. They split into small reading groups, with Warach jumping between them to offer feedback. Later, there was a discussion of Earth Day about "The Lorax" and a math class on the classification of everyday objects – rolls of tape, coins, pens – according to the shape.
There was a break for lunch and recess, followed by Hebrew class. As Oisabel sprawled on the floor, Shira snuggled up against her mother and a father whispered to his son: – Can you take that blanket off your head, please?
This is the first grade of a private school determined to make remote education during the coronavirus as similar as possible to what it was before the pandemic. The Chicago Jewish School offers four hours and 15 minutes of live instruction daily, including yoga, art and music. Students still do messy projects about Zoom, with their parents as sous chefs.
He bears little resemblance to the more typical experience that Jacob Rios is having in Philadelphia, where he attends the first grade of a public school, Spruance Elementary.
Jacob didn't see his teacher on the video screen until late April; the district spent the first few weeks of the shutdown focused on training employees to use remote teaching tools, distributing laptops to students and receiving meals for low-income families, who make up the majority of the district's population.
Now, Jacob's teacher, Dolores Morris, meets with her students every morning for an hour – Jacob's only live video instruction, according to his mother. About 11 of the 26 students in the class attend daily, Morris said.
A closer look at these two very different first grade classes in two of America's largest cities shows how the coronavirus pandemic it did nothing to level the playing field of American education and instead widened the gaps that have always existed.
About 10% of American children attend private schools, not all leaders in online education. And there are also disparities in the public system, in which some schools have done much more than others to get online instructions up and running. But what the pandemic has made clear is that remote education, especially for younger students, requires a rare mix of enthusiastic school leadership, knowledge of teachers and homes equipped with everything children need to learn effectively.
At Chicago Jewish Day School, students who need extra help are being guided in phonetics via Zoom, or meeting remotely with a social worker. The school sent books home, dry-erase boards, markers and other necessary supplies. The parents provided the rest: Internet access, iPads and quiet corners for study in well-equipped houses, full of pianos, books and tasteful wooden kitchens.
The system has been in operation since mid-March.
Remote learning at the Chicago school is not perfect. There are irregular Wi-Fi connections, lost emojis on the chat panel, and children moving away from the screen. But there is little doubt that in a nation with more than 100,000 schools closed, these children continue to receive luxury goods – one with a list price of $ 28,000 a year.
In Morris's class in Philadelphia, Jacob is one of the most fortunate students. His mother, Brenda Rios, sits beside him to help him with the tasks. She is out of work from her usual part-time job, preparing meals at a preschool.
Because many of the other students' parents are essential workers – prison guards, janitors, nursing assistants – Morris knows that they may not be available to offer practical support. Still, she is trying to look on the bright side.
"I'm thanking God that I can at least see their faces," she said.
This is rare in the world of coronavirus-altered learning. The Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank, examined the remote learning policies of 100 public school districts and charter networks across the country. He found that only 22 of them are requiring real-time teaching – and only 10 of those systems are teaching live in all grades, including elementary school.
The country's three largest districts, in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, do not require teachers to do any live video instruction, although some individual schools are choosing to do so.
It is a different story in many private, independent and parochial schools. Although associations have said they have no hard data on the average number of hours students in their networks receive live instruction, examples from across the country often show a gap in public schools.
The reasons are clear: students in private schools are more likely to live in homes with good access to the Internet, computers and physical space for children to focus on academics. Parents are less likely to work outside the home and are more available to guide children to stay online and stay logged in – typing usernames and passwords, navigating between windows and programs.
And, unlike their public school colleagues, private teachers are generally not union members, giving employers more influence on the demand for remote work. Some public school unions has won strict limits on video teaching requirements, arguing that it can be difficult for educators to teach how to live at home when many also look after their own children, whose schools and daycare centers are also closed.
In Philadelphia, Morris, a 42-year-old veteran, is in her last semester before retirement, and looks nothing like the farewell she expected. However, she was dedicated to learning the technology to teach remotely. She often sends text and email messages to parents while interacting with her students simultaneously through Google Classroom.
A recent Monday morning was dedicated to a phonetics class on the "oy" sound. Morris used Google Classroom to display vocabulary words on the slides – "like", "dirty" – "annoy" – and Jacob's mother, Rios, helped him complete an online activity by identifying the various spellings of the sound.
Rios, alone at home with three children, said she appreciated Morris' dedication to his students at a difficult time. Still, the online transition was difficult. At first, Rios wasn't sure how to operate the district-supplied Chromebook. Since then, much of the day's activity has revolved around spreadsheets and compliance checks, which can be maddening for online submission.
For an art class, Jacob watched a video about Vincent van Gogh and had to fill out an “exit ticket”, writing down what he had learned about the painter. Like any first grader, Jacob needed help creating complete sentences on the computer. Then, after sending her reply, Rios was forced to click on another screen to inform that the activity had ended.
Sometimes, during live classes, Rios can see through the video feed that another child is confused – he has not opened the right window or clicked on the right link – and does not have an adult around to help him.
"I was almost crying today," she said. "It is painful to see that – a child who wants to learn and cannot."
Morris is also frustrated with the limitations of online learning, especially as she may not always be able to see students' reactions while she presents them with the material, to see if they understand. She may say that using the system is difficult for first-year students, because even some strong students are sending blank assignments, which means they probably did the job, but their responses were not recorded.
In Chicago, there are many reasons why Jewish Day School was able to handle the transition to remote learning so well. The school closed for students ahead of most others in Illinois. This allowed administrators to spend several days, before the building closed, training team members on how to use the online tools.
The school's curriculum is based on practical activities and discussions, which means that children learning at home need not be as adept at typing as they are at schools that assign more structured written worksheets.
And, crucially, the school's families are generally economically stable and available to closely monitor their children's education.
Given the possibility As schools will remain at least partially closed in the fall, Chicago Jewish Day School is now promoting itself as a leader in remote learning, with a smooth video intended for parents. School leaders hope to increase enrollment at a time when requests for financial aid may increase as donations decrease because of the economic crisis. 57% of school families already receive some help with tuition.
Parents in Warach's class said they were pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of the first online series.
Among them is Caroline Musin Berkowitz, a nonprofit manager, and her husband, a legal analyst. Both are working in their apartment while taking care of their two young children. The fact that Shira, 6, is at school most of the day, sitting in front of her parents at the dining room table with headphones, provides some pause.
The family has no qualms about re-enrolling Shira in the fall, although they are not getting the exact experience they thought they were paying for.
"We made the choice to go to private schools over public schools for many reasons," said Musin Berkowitz, "and the idea of a global pandemic and a school moving to the Internet was not one of them."
Now, she added, "I can't even describe how beneficial it has been."