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September 23, 2020 24 min

The  Queens Memory Project  brings you the eighth episode of season two of the  Queens Memory Podcast.  This season we have collected the documented experiences of Queens residents during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

On this episode, we hear from educators of different backgrounds about how virtual learning has impacted their students and the way they do their jobs. 


On March 15, 2020, Mayor De Blasio  announced  New York City schools would close to slow the spread of COVID-19. On March 23, 1.1 million students and 75,000 teachers in the city switched to remote learning. Less than two weeks later, De Blasio  extended  the closure to the end of the school year. As of the publishing of this podcast, NYC schools  remain closed  for most children.

Tiffany Davis-Nealy, of South Ozone Park, traveled the world as an education consultant before becoming the principal of PS 165 in Flushing. Davis-Nealy was a motivated student, raised in Bed-Stuy at PS 40 and transferred to PS 121 in Queens in the fifth grade, where her mother fought for her to be placed in advanced classes. Nealy felt destined to be an educator because she wanted to be like one of the teachers who shaped her life so positively. She majored in psychology and education in college and then began her career in Harlem in the 1990s. Nealy would later work for Columbia University, PS 21, and finally, currently, at PS 165.

Nealy states she has learned a lot about her students since the onset of COVID-19 and the switch to virtual learning. She has noticed a higher level of food insecurity among the families than she had previously been aware of. In fact, Flushing is what is known as a food desert -- where there are fewer than  10 retail food stores  per 10,000 residents. Nealy notes that many of her students had relied on lunches received in school as their primary food source. While  organizations  and the  city  have stepped up to help provide meals, there remains a struggle to support families and make virtual learning work for everyone.

Shawn Chandler, an attendance teacher for the Department of Education, is eager to help people through the uncertain future of the pandemic. Born in Queens, Chandler has worked for the DoE for 15 years, where he tracks down young adults who have stopped attending school for various reasons and helps get them on a course to graduation. Chandler also owns  Sing 2 School Inc.,  a hip-hop educational company.

Predictions have been made far and wide about what schools will  look like  when they reopen amid COVID-19, what the US can learn from  other countries  about safely reopening, and even what schools will  look like  years after the pandemic has ebbed. 

Chandler has his own theories. While he acknowledges that the implementation of remote learning has  not been seamless  and that the practice itself is  not for everyone,  he predicts that hybrid-lessons and attending in-person a few days a week will be much more common in coming years. Chandler is hopeful that whatever changes are coming to the education system will be effective in keeping students in school.

Remote learning has been especially difficult for students with special needs and their families. These students who require the most direct support in a classroom have suddenly had to transition to learning at home with their families. In New York City,  228,000 children  with disabilities have been affected by the closure as  services  have changed.

Keisha Desmarattes is a lifelong Queens resident and a special education teacher. Formerly a social worker, Desmarates earned her MA in social work in 2014. She recalls teachers scrambling to prepare for what teaching is going to look like this fall. When the closures began, most teachers assumed it would be back to normal by September. Desmarates laments the  disadvantages  her students experience with remote learning, but she is committed to ensuring they receive all the care and support she can provide. She notes her dream of opening a women’s youth center for young girls to gain the tools to succeed.

Shanté Spivey is principal at a school for special education in Queens. She has always chosen to work with children who have special needs as she holds out hope for those who people feel can not learn. Spivey has noticed many difficulties her students and their  caregivers  have faced since the switch to remote learning. She recalls one student who lives with a grandmother and has one tablet and unreliable WiFi for 11 people who live in the home. 

This week, NYC  students  with advanced special needs returned for in-person instruction. 

Both Spivey and Desmarates advocate for better support for special education students and commit to providing the best services they can for the community that they whole-heartedly support and see the potential in. 

“If you can tap into children in the manner that you need to, this world would explode,” said Spivey.


This episode of Queens Memory was produced by Jordan Gass-Poore in conjunction with Syreeta Gates, Theresa Gaffney, Anna Williams, Jo-Ann Wong, and Natalie Milbrodt. This episode was edited by Anna Williams with mixing by Briana Stodden and music composed by Elias Ravin and the Blue Dot Sessions. 

Special thanks for funding support from the New York Community Trust. Queens Memory is an ongoing community archiving program by the Queens Public Library and Queens College, CUNY.

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Chat About The Borough We Became: Queens Residents On Life During COVID-19

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