The closure of city public school buildings Thursday also marked the end of in-person classes for another population of New York City youngsters: kids being held in juvenile lockups.

But for the 141 minors jailed citywide, remote learning means a system where they cannot be seen or heard by their teachers during school hours.

They can only communicate with their instructors via text chat, according to teachers and other sources familiar with the system.  

Support outside of class time is limited to virtual or phone “prescribed office hours” with teachers and guidance counselors, Department of Education representatives said without providing details. There’s also an in-person tutoring program in one facility, according to the Administration for Children’s Services.

Teachers say that students being held at the detention centers in every borough except Manhattan risk falling even further behind as the pandemic shakes public education in the city.

“I have kids, very low-level readers, writers, and their only ability to talk back to us is to type what they don’t get,” said Troy Sill, who teaches history remotely at Bronx Hope, a branch of Passages Academy, the city’s network of schools for so-called court-involved youth

Children in the city’s most restrictive facilities, primarily at Horizon and Crossroads Juvenile Centers, attend class where they are being detained. Kids at the seven other “non-secure” centers largely attend Passages schools outside their residences.

Video Privacy Concerns

Sill, who has been union chapter leader for Passages Academy schools for 15 years, said ACS has legitimate concerns that make schooling more difficult — including safety and confidentiality issues raised by using two-way video connections.

Sill said he was told that officials “were concerned that the kids identities could get out or the kids might be able to use one of the platforms to reach the outside and communicate.”

Sill also acknowledged that strides have been made since the early months of the pandemic. For instance, starting in September the kids were finally able to see and hear their teachers and, until Thursday, limited in-person teaching had returned to Passages programs in various facilities.

“But none of us feel that this is the totality of what the children should be receiving. It’s not anywhere near. And the handicap is coming from the ACS end,” he added.

ACS, through a spokesperson who didn’t want to be named, insisted that “quality education and programming are critical components of our juvenile justice system. All youth in detention have access to remote and in-person learning through DOE’s Passages Academy.”

Neither ACS nor the city Department of Education responded to THE CITY’s questions about specific policies. But the DOE said both agencies are working to address barriers to students using cameras.

“Students have been provided Chromebooks [laptops] to complete their work and have regular connection with caring adults,” said Nathaniel Styer, a DOE spokesperson. “And we are proud of the work our educators perform every day to deliver instruction to students in detention, including special education services.” 

‘A Very Inadequate System’

Sill told THE CITY, that educators, social workers and teachers are “really trying” during remote learning. 

“I am confident that on our end, we’re really doing everything we can within this very strange system,” he said. “But are we doing right by our kids right now? No.“

When COVID-19 first surged, ACS scrambled to protect both staff and children as virus cases started to pop up in detention facilities.  To date, seven kids have tested positive between Crossroads and Horizon, the city’s two largest facilities, according to ACS.

No teachers were initially “actually teaching classes” and education consisted “solely of worksheets and computerized packets,” according to testimony by the Bronx Defenders, submitted for a May City Council oversight hearing. 

Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Since then, detained youth have received DOE-approved laptops to complete assignments, and access live remote teaching, even if instructors can’t see or hear them. Students also have tablets for educational and other programming, like college prep classes.

But access to tech can be dependent on behavior.

Tablets were distributed for educational and other programming but could be taken away as punishment, ACS’ Deputy Commissioner Sara Hemmeter told the Council’s Committee on the Justice System in May: “The better their behavior is, the longer they get to keep the tablets and and use them as well.”

‘Our kids should get the same level of support as any other New York City kid.’

According to the child welfare agency, if a child cannot use a laptop for school, they are assigned lessons in paper packets. ACS did not respond when asked how many children had lost their right to use their laptops or tablets since the pandemic began.

Recently, Sill had a parent-teacher conference with a young detainee over Skype. It was the first time he had seen the student or heard their voice.

Many students don’t show up to virtual office hours, or even online classes, said Sill. And homework he receives is thin on substance — something he said can be a consequence of an inability to successfully connect with students online.

“It’s just a very inadequate system. We need to be able to see them and talk to them, like any other kid. Our kids should get the same level of support as any other New York City kid,” said Sill. 

‘Dire Straits’ Ahead?

Neither ACS or the DOE have responded to requests for current attendance numbers, but a May report by the independent federal monitor overseeing the city’s correctional facilities showed education at Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx was already “hampered by chronic tardiness.” 

Students overseen by the monitor were late to class at Horizon an average of nearly an hour day last November, pre-pandemic.

“It’s clear that the Department of Education is working with ACS to make improvements in access and quality of education,” said Dawn Yuster, director of the School Justice Project at the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York.

But she worries about what another school shutdown will mean for kids in city lock ups.

“We could be in dire straits in terms of academic access for kids in juvenile detention because of limitations to technology, when the Department of Education is not allowed to be present in a facility.”

For Laurel Gwizdak Rinaldi, director of youth services at the Center for Community Alternatives, which runs programming at Horizon, “the challenge is supporting students in engaging with their teachers.”

ACS has so-called program counselors who are supposed to help kids wake up and do homework, but the online sessions can be time consuming, said Rinaldi. 

She called for “essential workers” to assist kids in person, much like a parent would at home, despite the health risks. 

Rinaldi has already begun working with the city to hire tutors who visit The Bronx’s Horizon Juvenile Center  two days a week, for three hours at a time.  But it is only one facility, and they can only reach 10 of the facility’s 40 youth per visit, she said. 

Teachers, meanwhile, want to be able to hear and see their kids during remote learning sessions.

“That’s our goal,” said Sill. “That’s what the teachers the administration would love to see happen. But that is not happening, yet.”