Category: Fall 2020, Georgetown Magazine

Title:Personal Reflections: Rio Djiwandana

Author: Interviewed by Jeffrey Donahoe
Date Published: November 18, 2020

Rio Djiwandana crop

The Crown Heights community is made up of mostly low-income families of color.

The vast majority of my students identify as Afro-Caribbean and are from countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Lucia, all over the Caribbean. A lot of them are first- or second-generation immigrant families. Most of the students at our school receive free or reduced-price lunches. Even after the public schools transitioned to remote learning, many school sites remained open and provided students and families with grab-and-go meals.

The last day of school was Friday, March 13. Over that weekend, New York City mayor de Blasio announced a school shutdown, then a transition to remote learning. Teachers were given very few teaching guidelines, and I mostly researched learning platforms. I taught via Google Classroom for the rest of the year.

Because my students are 8 and 9 years old, I tried to make remote learning as user- friendly as possible. A lot of them are typing for the first time and haven’t had the chance to become very technologically proficient. That was a big challenge for them. Another really big obstacle in low-income communities is having consistent internet access. Only about a third of my students logged on every day or even just consistently. A lot of them didn’t have access to a device that would allow them to participate in remote learning. The city’s Department of Education finally was able to issue iPads, but I don’t think students got them until late April or early May, so they had already missed more than four weeks of instruction.

As a teacher, not only are you making sure students learn the content they are supposed to be learning, you are teaching families and students how to use remote learning platforms so they can actively participate in their education.

Low-income communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and New York was hit so hard in the early days. A lot of my students had family members get sick. Someone loses a job or has their hours cut, and suddenly families are trying to figure out how to put food on the table. It’s understandable that helping their kids finish two assignments for school every day can’t always be a priority when they have all these other things to worry about.

I was able to communicate well with my students and their families during remote learning this spring because I had built relationships from the beginning of the school year.

Rio Djiwandana (SFS’16) taught third-grade math and special education at P.S. 91, a public elementary school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He is now a special education coordinator at Uncommon Schools, a New York charter school network. On November 18, New York City announced that education would be remote indefinitely. 

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