“They Became My Family”: How One Bronx Middle School Managed During The Pandemic

It is officially the last day of class for New York City public school students, and many families are beyond eager to close this chapter of pandemic education. But the impact—on kids and the school system at large—will reverberate for years. Late last year, the mayor acknowledged will have to invest substantial resources in helping kids catch up.

Every student had a different experience with pandemic schooling, depending on whether they were fully remote or hybrid, how often their schools closed, and the unique stresses facing each family and community. 

At the Highbridge Green School in the Bronx, the final days brought relief, celebration, and a mix of optimism and anxiety about what comes next. 

The middle school’s eighth graders celebrated their graduation this week. Best friends posed for photos, balloons in hand, beaming beneath their masks. As “Pomp and Circumstance” blared in the courtyard, Principal Kyle Brillante quoted author Alice Walker, saying “hard times require furious dancing.” He encouraged students, parents and staff to dance especially furiously to celebrate making it through.

Kyle Brillante smiles while standing in front of a sign that says 2021 Congrats Grads

Principal Kyle Brillante was beaming on graduation day. ” I think one of the biggest things that we’ve learned as a system, and for me as a school leader, is just about the value of flexibility. We all recognize that this has been a really challenging year and we’ve tried to extend grace and generosity to our kids and families and give them extra support,” he said. Jessica Gould / WNYC

Graduation was different this year: four outdoor ceremonies to keep crowds small, plus a virtual one for families who didn’t feel safe coming to school. Students didn’t get diplomas handed to them immediately; first they had to return their iPads, which were on loan from the education department. There was sanitizer at the podium, and a moment of silence for the loved ones who died.  

After the ceremony, Diana Caballero, 14, huddled with her teachers and wiped away tears. “When the whole pandemic started and we went virtual, I really thought I’m not going to make it,” Caballero said. “But to see that each and every one of my peers is able to graduate is really a great thing. It’s really a blessing actually.”

Jessica Caballero smile at the camera

Diana Caballero was thrilled about graduation. “To see that each and every one of my peers is able to graduate is really a great thing. It’s a blessing actually,” she said. Jessica Gould / WNYC

Caballero was a star student before the pandemic, but during remote learning she fell far behind. At home, there were so many distractions: her three younger sisters all doing their schoolwork in close quarters at the same time, chores, the persistent beeps from a broken fire alarm, and the constant drilling from building repairs. Her grades dropped from 90s to 60s before rebounding this spring. Along the way, she said she learned some life lessons: like how to lean on her friends and teachers for support. “They became my family,” she said. 

Highbridge Green is in the southwest Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium, and it draws nearly 400 students in sixth through eighth grade from the nearby community. Most are Latino or Black, many have parents who are immigrants, and almost all are from low-income families. In those ways, it’s like most of the city’s public schools. 

But Highbridge Green did things a bit differently than most other public schools this year. Many teachers chose to teach kids in class and at home simultaneously, even though an agreement between the city and the teachers union said they were not required to do so. The guidance encouraged staff to do either remote or in-person learning, not both.Teachers also “looped” with their students, sticking with the same ones they had last year to create more consistency, even though that meant teachers often had to learn brand new material. 

A school safety agent smiles while masked

“It was hard, for us especially, we had to be inside when everything was shutting down,” Maribel Guzman, a school security agent, said. “I see the light. It’s like the students became part of my family. Even though I have to play the tough mother, I’m so proud,” Jessica Gould / WNYC

Attendance, in person and online, was the chief challenge. All fall, administrators worked the phones trying to track down missing students, some of whom had left the city or the country

“There are some students who we really lost during remote learning, who we didn’t get to see basically at all, because they had trouble navigating technology or didn’t feel like they had to show up because they felt like they weren’t learning anything,” said eighth grade social studies teacher Kaila Zogheb. 

She said she routinely texted and called students and their parents to encourage them to log on. None of the eighth graders were held back, but Zogheb said nearly 10% of her students stopped showing up regularly for classes or fell off the radar altogether. 

Two eighth graders, a girl on the left and a boy wearing a hat on the right, both masked, stand in front of a fence

“I’m feeling good. It has been a long two years. I’m hoping things will go back to normal, back in person,” Idris Dennis, a graduating eighth grader (right), said. “Before I didn’t want to go to school, but now I’m like ‘School is ok.’” Jessica Gould / WNYC

How much students fell behind during the pandemic remains an open question. Highbridge Green assessed students’ progress every few months. Reading scores were surprisingly high, even higher than usual, potentially because of all the reading kids had to do online. Math scores seemed to slip at first but rebounded. It was impossible to tell from the data how student performance compares to what it would have been without the disruptions of the past year. According to administrators, more students returned for in-person learning after the city allowed them to do so in April, some five days a week. 

“Everyone’s always talking about, we’ve lost so much ground,” said eighth grade social studies teacher Carlee Moses. “And I get upset about it, too, because I think about where we could have been had none of this happened.

“But then that’s not reality,” she added. “So we’re just going to have to adjust our practices to meet students where they are, so that we can get them to where we know they can be.” A science teacher at the school even incorporated lessons about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Anna Waters, with her brown hair in a bun and wearing sunglasses and a colorful pink and blue dress with a green necklace is outside and smiling

“This year was a thousand years and counting,” Anna Waters, an assistant principal, said. “The lesson learned is that we don’t need a school building to go to school. Home is where the heart is and school is where the heart is, also.” Jessica Gould / WNYC

At graduation, Aida Pacheco, a mom of an eighth grader, said she was more worried about whether her daughter Julia is emotionally prepared for high school than about her academic progress. She said Julia has social anxiety and cried when she got her high school admissions letter. “She’s been a year and a half at home, no friends, no school, no teachers in person,” she said. “I’m worried about her not being ready.”

Remote learning will not be an option this fall, when schools are supposed to open for in-person learning as usual. 

For some students, the challenges of the past year made them feel stronger. 

“I learned how to be independent, because we had more independent time during quarantine,” rising freshman Jarleny Rodriguez said. I’m excited to go to high school. I feel confident, and I’m ready.”