Lessons in Survival

Remote teaching is challenging decades of accepted knowledge. Teachers, parents, students and schools of education are rethinking how to improve learning and educational equity. And the elderly are finding they’re not too old to learn something new.

How A NonProfit Plans to Outlive COVID-19

The Bronx Arts Ensemble won’t hit “pause” waiting until normal life resumes

By Anna Deen

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Bronx Arts Ensemble was faced with a difficult choice.

Artistic director Judith Insell says the education organization in the Northwest Bronx debated whether to halt operations until normal life resumed or take the risk of pushing forward to serve its community.

In a typical year, it hosts 60 to 70 free concerts and provides arts education to hundreds of thousands of Bronx students across public schools.

With in-person performances halted and the city slashing its arts-education budget by 70%, the nonprofit had to strategize new ways to reach its audience.

“We’re a small, scrappy nonprofit organization,” says Insell.

The organization developed robust online offerings and a collaborative approach that has expanded its outreach beyond the Bronx. The group plans to add a new division in anticipation of digital programming becoming a permanent aspect of its work in the post-pandemic world.

“We’re a small, scrappy nonprofit organization in the Bronx,” says Insell. “If we can make more of an impact with these more-enhanced concert presentations or teaching-artist classes with graphics and computer programs, then it’s not such a bad thing that we have to work this way.”

This year’s Summer Arts series marked the start of the initiative to assemble more digital content. The group has hosted free online courses on everything from African drumming and dance to Capoeira martial-arts movement and also has streamed live yoga sessions each Friday.  read more >

If we can make more of an impact with these more-enhanced concert presentations or teaching-artist classes with graphics and computer programs, then it’s not such a bad thing that we have to work this way.

Judith Insell

Artistic director Bronx Arts Ensemble

Fighting loneliness, one Zoom class at a time

Online communities blossom for seniors

By Harry Parker

Geoffrey Cohen, a Bay Ridge retiree, has always been a homebody. He never married and usually limited his pre-pandemic social activity to the occasional Broadway show.

When Bay Ridge Connects—an extension of a local senior center that specializes in providing technology lessons among other practical resources—opened, he was eager to develop friendships and joined as soon as the program launched.

“I figured I’d probably, you know, meet people over Zoom,” Cohen, 65, said.

Cohen expanded his social circles through Yahtzee game classes and a Broadway listening group. Tech courses proved successful on multiple levels: A new friend even dropped off sweets for him on Thanksgiving. He remains engaged in multiple courses.

Bay Ridge Connects offers courses to any senior who can access Zoom from home. Despite a focus on local residents, up to 15% of the online participants are from outside the neighborhood.

A recent study in the Journal of Global Health Research and Policy identified social isolation among seniors during the pandemic as a public health crisis. It found that participation in virtual classes is vital for mental health and found that social isolation can result in a 50% increase in risk for dementia.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 will have a long-term and profound impact on older adults’ health and well-being,” said Bei Wu, the study’s author.

The Bay Ridge center is prime example of how technology can combat isolation.

Rosemary Shabouk, 68, has lived in the neighborhood for 43 years. Before the pandemic, she was part of a church group and participated in a knitting club at Bay Ridge Connects. She and her husband, Joseph, would often visit their children in Massachusetts and Virginia on weekends. But their social lives came to a screeching halt with the shutdown. read more >

[Bay Ridge Connects] is almost entirely driven by the older adults themselves. The staff is really there to facilitate trying to get those things to happen.

David Dring

Technology trainer at Bay Ridge Connects


Increased risk of developing dementia associated with social isolation

Schools Need a Real Online Plan

A Q&A with education expert Tom Liam Lynch

By Matthew Euzarraga

New York City closed all public schools on March 16 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Teachers, students and parents were caught unprepared as in-person classes were suspended in favor of remote learning.

That was just the start of the confusion.

Schools would reopen in October with a combination of in-person and online learning, close again in November after a virus spike in cases and then reopen once more in early December.

By year’s end, thousands of students had disappeared from school rosters, two-thirds of students were opting for a digital-only model, and no one had answers to when education would return to “normal.”

To get a better sense of what schooling might look like once the coronavirus threat has been tamed, the NYCity News Service spoke with Tom Liam Lynch, director of education policy at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

A former teacher, Lynch worked with the city Department of Education to implement iLearnNYC a decade ago, providing online classes students would otherwise be unable to access. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You write extensively on how technology and education go hand in hand. With our lives so dominated by Facebook, Twitter and the internet, why do we seem to be struggling with distance education?

The current administration didn’t have anything resembling a digital learning strategy.  It’s typical for a school district to have an instructional technology strategy, documented way ahead of time. They also fund different initiatives so that you can be strategic and smart about the way that you prepare schools to use technology.

The New York City public school system under the de Blasio administration had nothing resembling that. So this meant when everything hit the fan in March, there was no blueprint for what to do. There was no way for the city to provide centralized support to their schools.

Under previous Mayor Bloomberg, the city had established a $50-million online learning program called iLearnNYC, which was a customized platform they built that had catalogs of online classes they had purchased. The de Blasio administration didn’t seem aware that a systemwide online learning platform was right under their nose. read more >

  "Any child who needs access to a device and a high-speed internet connection gets it," says Tom Liam Lynch."The city needs to figure that out."(Courtesy of Lynch)