How are some New York families coping and planning for possible homeschooling with the pandemic still lurking? 

School.  It’s a word that means so much, but the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the concept of learning upside down for parents and students who are wondering what their new normal will look like once the 2020-‘21 school term starts in a few short weeks.

It’s an unsettled time for all as the start of the school season rapidly approaches.  It’s been a weird, strange summer, with many camps closed and the ones that opened conducted at a social distance that’s unnatural for children who love to mix and mingle.

When – if – school doors open in September, how will parents and students cope?  Not surprisingly they are full of fear and doubt, with the coronavirus foremost on their minds.  Schools in New York have been closed since March when the little known COVID-19 took root and caused rapid sickness and death on a shocking scale.

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Since those dark, frightening days New York has gone from worst to first in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, but does that mean that it’s back to business for large scale groupings of people in places like schools, even with social distancing and sanitizing protocols in place?

No way says a Yonkers mother of three, Margaret Purcell Roddy, a photographer well known in the local Irish community who also works as a caregiver.  When schools shut down in March Purcell Roddy quickly shifted gears and became a home school teacher for her three children – Andrew, who’ll turn 13 in September, 11-year-old Lily and Shayla, nine. 

The Roddy kids.

The Roddy kids.

Though she’d love for school to proceed as it always has, Purcell Roddy is not prepared to risk the health of her kids, their friends, or their teachers.  Overseeing grammar school lessons isn’t her calling, but she’s ready to take the reins until the worst of the pandemic has passed.

“I am definitely not crazy about homeschooling, but I’m not having my kids go back to their schools,” Purcell Roddy told the Irish Voice.

“I see myself putting on my teacher’s cap again. We’ve been doing various projects to get prepared.  We re-did Andrew’s room as a little man cave with a separate area for him to study and work.  I re-did my office to have Shayla next to me, and Lily has her space too. 

“So we’ve pretty much set up a school at home. Everyone has their area where they can focus and hopefully learn.”

Middle child Lily attends the private Windward School in White Plains; Andrew and Shayla are students at Family School 32 in Yonkers.  Windward shut its doors early in March just before the worst of COVID-19 infected New York – “the administrators there are totally on top of things,” Purcell Roddy says – and she anticipates that an abundance of caution will again prevail.  Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will decide if New York schools can open fully or partly, or not at all, during the first week of August.

Remote learning, or a mix of in-class and homeschooling, doesn’t appeal to Purcell Roddy.

“It’s way too confusing. Why would I open my kids up to the possibility of catching the germ two days a week, and then home school three days a week? The whole idea of half in school and half at home is too overwhelming,” she feels.

Purcell Roddy’s husband Benny, a native of Ardee, Co. Louth, is the head chef at Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers.  He cooks the meals for his family, but the schooling is pretty much left to his wife given his schedule.  “He also has to listen to me vent about what’s going on,” Purcell Roddy laughs.

Having the kids at home full time in March was an eye-opener for the Roddy family.  The early days were chaotic. 

“I know everyone was suddenly thrown into a new situation, but I don’t feel my two kids in Yonkers learned too much for the remainder of the school year,” Purcell Roddy maintains.

“The lessons were either on YouTube or a blackboard.  And lots of keeping journals and things like that.  It wasn’t a true learning experience, but again, I understand the sudden strain teachers were under.”

Andrew, a bright student who’ll enters eighth grade, was hoping to use the spring months in school to sharpen his skills for the TACHS Catholic high school entrance exam this fall.  Because of the sudden shift to homeschooling, his parents plan to hire a tutor in the weeks prior to the test.

Turning a home into a school doesn’t come cheap.  The Roddys used up plenty of paper and ink to print lessons, with the ink refills alone costing $100.   There was a packet of supplies sent to the parents when the schools closed, and another for the summer, which Purcell Roddy says wasn’t nearly enough to cover supply costs.

Naturally, the Roddy kids would love to turn back the clock to the days when they spent five days a week with their friends in school.  Their mother tells them that, for the time being, it won’t be possible.

“Of course they want to be with the other kids. They all Zoom and they are on the phone all the time, and we set up play dates,” Purcell Roddy says.

“I tell them that even if they were to go back to school in September, it wouldn’t be that much fun. It would be very different, wearing masks all day and having to stay apart.”

But that’s the way of the world these days, and the Roddys are diligent about complying with the rules, particularly when it comes to wearing masks.

“America should be leading the way on this.  It’s crazy that we aren’t,” Purcell Roddy says.  “It’s so simple.  The lack of leadership on this from the Trump administration is jaw-dropping.  But we will keep masking up and doing whatever it takes to stay safe.”

KELLY McPartland Woods is a mom of two, a boy and a girl.  The family lives in Williston Park, Long Island; Rory, 12, is headed into eighth grade and Molly, 11, is ready for seventh.  Both Woods kids attend Herricks Middle School, and their mom tells the Irish Voice that “everything came to a screeching halt for us when COVID hit.”

McPartland Woods’s husband, Gary, a native of Lisnaskea, Co. Fermanagh, is a carpenter who works for New York University.  Her job as an insurance claims adjustor for GEICO turned remote in March which was a good thing as the children’s school closed at the same time.  The job of overseeing the school rests with McPartland Woods.

Molly and Rory Woods.

Molly and Rory Woods.

“As great as our school district was about communicating with us about what would happen, it was a definite struggle adjusting to our new normal,” she says.

“Trying to keep the kids engaged and on a schedule was extremely difficult. They coped as best as they could and both did progress in all subjects.  They definitely didn’t cover as much curriculum as they would have if they were in a classroom.”

Teachers, she adds, were skilled in using online tools and did their best to adapt to the individual needs of their students. Rory’s learning was more recorded lessons on Google Classroom while Molly’s was live on Google Classroom and Zoom. 

The big fail as far as Rory was concerned? The cancellation of school sports.

“He was definitely disappointed,” his mom says.  “Wrestling was canceled mid-season and baseball never started.”

Molly does an extended school year which has brought her back into her classroom for three hours per week.  Her parents gave her the choice for online or in-school; she chose the latter.

“The district has done an absolutely outstanding job of keeping the class size to five or less and keeping socially distant,” McPartland Woods says.

“The teachers have masks and gowns and they do request the kids wear masks. The kids do not change classrooms; the teachers rotate instead. It has been a really positive experience.”

As far as September goes?  If school gets the go-ahead to bring students back to the buildings, Rory and Molly will be there.

“While I understand the classes won’t be as small in the fall I would still send them in. I hope to continue to work from home as long as I possibly can,” McPartland Woods says.

“We are waiting to hear what the governor says. We had to fill out a survey that our school superintendent sent out, with a video message detailing different plans.  So we will see.”

MICHAEL Fitzpatrick is a writer who also owns a more important title these days: he’s home schooler-in-chief for his three young kids.

A native of Lucan, Co. Dublin who’s been living in New York for more than two decades, Fitzpatrick’s wife, Mei Finnerty, is a nurse practitioner at a Manhattan hospital who was on the front lines when Covid-19 overwhelmed the city.  Thankfully she remained healthy, as did the children and their dad too. The sudden life change due to COVID, Fitzpatrick says, was akin to the ‘70s classic horror film Jaws.

“Picture mid-March 2020 being portrayed by the shark. Seriously though, it’s been difficult. The kids have been superstars. They’ve displayed a heroic innocence, an unnecessary courage even, just keeping on and getting by,” Fitzpatrick tells the Irish Voice.

“Their world, everything they’ve known, has been shredded, and they’ve adapted superbly. They went from spending six-seven hours with their teachers and friends each day, to a chaos-infused uncertainty, being guided in homeschooling by someone with no teaching experience, who’d much rather talk about David Bowie and soccer than Davy Crockett and social studies.  I’m not sure we ‘coped,’ but we got by, just.”

The Fitzpatrick kids – Liam, 10, Emmett, seven, and five-year-old Fiona, who just graduated from pre-kindergarten – attend PS 70 in Astoria, Queens.  Their mom, Mai, is a front line worker who makes the family proud.

“My wife has been brilliant. Up at 5 a.m., often home well after 9 p.m., on her feet in a hospital, sometimes close to patients suffering from Covid-19 effects, wearing a mask, all day,” Fitzpatrick says.

He gives full props to the PS 70 teachers who had to adapt with the snap of two fingers to a new way of educating their students.

“My kids’ education didn’t suffer. The teachers have been incredible. Here were professionals thrown into a situation where, rather than have personal experiences with their students, they’d to do it remotely, with 20-30 faces on a computer screen. We all missed the social aspect greatly,” Fitzpatrick says.

“Our youngest especially. Fiona loves school so much. She’d regularly cry that she couldn’t go and hug her teacher. It’s heartbreaking to hear a child talk about ‘when the virus is gone,’ of all the things she wants to do, and they’re simple things, like playing with her friends, hugging her Nana, and so on.”

Keeping organized and on schedule with three kids and their various needs was challenging for Fitzpatrick. Technology has made school at home possible, of course, but there’s so much to take in as well.

“Homeschooling was a struggle. As well as Zoom and Google Meets, we had to get used to several other apps, passwords and usernames that the kids would use for various subjects and lessons. For three kids, we’d an average of five online sessions a day, one after another, then dealing with homework, and all the usual parental stuff,” Fitzpatrick says.

“It was tough at times, but we’re still here. So many aren’t, and we have a little experience for September.”

That’s a month which is only weeks away. If New York State gives the go-ahead for open schools, how will the Fitzpatrick family respond?  Michael doesn’t see a return to normal for a good while.

“I doubt schooling as we know it will be back any time soon. Even if it were, I’m not sure we’d jump at that opportunity,” he says. 

“There’s so little known about how this virus mutates, travels and spreads that it’s impossible to determine what is and isn’t safe, school-wise. Right now, I’d like a day or two in school, and three days distant-learning, simply to have them see their teachers, get out and perhaps see their friends.”

Fitzpatrick says that compromise is hardly a perfect plan, given that hygiene standards vary from home to home.

“Do all their classmates’ families practice social distancing, regular hand washing, mask-wearing, and so on? Ask me in two minutes and I’ll have a different answer. I work from home, but now there’s little work or at least time to do any,” he adds.

“My wife has to work, but not just so we can survive financially. If she doesn’t go in, it’ll affect not only her colleagues but her patients.”

A proper perspective is often in short supply these days, but the Fitzpatrick family has it in abundance. As Michael says, “We’ll just keep doing the right thing, and hopefully science will provide us with a vaccine before long. I’ve not lost my optimism.”

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