Reflections on the New Normal

May 4, 2020
By: Hattie Hill

Unfortunately, it often takes a major crisis to expose deep cracks in the system. Over the past 25 years, the federal government has allocated billions to closing the digital divide, the term used to describe the gap between those who have access to digital information and those who do not because of lack of either devices or internet connectivity. But the problem has persisted, and, last year, Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that more than 21 million people in the United States were without internet connectivity.

It took a five-alarm fire—the complete shutdown of schools nationwide—to bring the problem to the forefront. While state and federal governments have been taking a piecemeal approach to the issue, we need to work toward a holistic solution that includes four components: access, affordability, literacy and engagement of parents, and safety.

While parents and educators have been scrambling to support students during this unprecedented time, we convened our first virtual meeting with our New York-based think tank, composed of leaders in business, nonprofit and education. They spoke about the problems plaguing low-income communities: multiple children having to share a single device, children relying on smartphones (which don’t have the same functionality as computers or tablets), homes without basic supplies like computer paper, and how students are balancing schoolwork with other responsibilities.

Following our call, we asked the group to share their thoughts on this new normal and what steps educators and organizations are taking to support students, now and in the future. Here are some of the responses we received.

Alli Liddie, Associate Executive Director, New York State for Youth Success

Afterschool providers are essential workers during this time of crisis and are coming together to support children and families in need. In some cases, these programs have kept their doors open and extended their hours to serve children of essential workers and ensure that those on the frontlines are able to work. In others, they have transitioned to virtual platforms to provide enrichment activities for children and families at home, counseling services, tutoring support for children struggling to complete schoolwork, and the list goes on. Many are distributing meals as the need continues to increase. At the same time, these critical programs have seen revenues plummet and face uncertainty over whether or not they will continue to be paid for government contracts or through private grants when they are unable to meet their original deliverables. Some wonder how long they will be able to sustain their staff; others have already had to make the hard decision to lay off employees and wonder how they will reopen when this crisis ends. This crisis has highlighted just how critical afterschool programs are to the foundation of our communities, but has also made clear the cracks in our systems that must be addressed in order to allow youth, families, and the economy to flourish in a post COVID-19 reality. 

Briana Ryan, Education Program Manager, New Lab

Newlab is home to a community of 800 entrepreneurs, engineers, and inventors applying technology to things that matter. For one day each month, the HE³AT program invites students from local Brooklyn public high schools to work alongside this community, developing their projects and vision for the future. The program is designed to get students out of the classroom and into the real world. With classes taking place online for the foreseeable future, inspiring and engaging students enrolled in the HE³AT program looks a lot different today. 

 Students in the HE³AT program learn to approach problems differently and to consider the person or people for whom they are developing solutions. Embracing this new way of generating ideas requires students to be open, creative, and agile thinkers.  Much the same way we ask our students to adopt new approaches, the “new normal” for HE³AT requires us to reimagine the possibilities for the program. Build-a-tower group challenges, lessons in the 3D printing lab, in-person mentoring with startup founders, and a showcase event for students to pitch their projects are no longer taking place in the way that we had envisioned. Instead, we’re working closely with the NYC Department of Education and our students to take the program virtual and to find new ways to deliver on our mission to equip students with the 21st-century skills they need to thrive.

Dr. Rochy Flint, Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University

To the Parent:

This is not a time for perfection.  Measure success in providing presence and support as your children work through their own process of transition.  As a mathematician, I encourage you to refrain from culturally enforced messages about being “bad at math.”  Instead, ask your child to teach you something, however small, about subjects that they struggle with.  Give your children opportunities to teach you rather than constantly teaching them.  When children engage as educators, it is the deepest learning experience you can give them.

 To the Teacher:

Less is more.  Keep it basic and offer optional extra credit to keep high achievers motivated.  An educational passion of mine is pairing students at the start of the semester with a study partner (we call it a MathChavrusa). This relationship has been vital and has embedded social accountability and structure into this isolating virtual environment. Another way to incorporate social accountability is to offer independent projects that students present to their peers who can provide individualized feedback.  Virtual coffee meetups outside courses are another great way to enhance accountability and personal connection.

 To Teachers (from a Mother’s Perspective):

Educators, please send clear and simple instructions for virtual meetings and advanced notice of basic requirements. To provide equitable access to students of diverse backgrounds, remember that many students have only very basic equipment and may not be able to print materials.  Prerecorded videos are a great tool to take advantage of scheduling flexibility, to allow people to work within their own changing schedules, and to watch the lesson again to accommodate their own paces.  Lessons that are interactive and have a blend of online meeting time and offline work cycles have been the most effective format in our own home. 


What does your new normal look like? How can we leverage what we’ve learned to help close the digital divide? We’d want to hear from you. Reach out, share your thoughts and learn how you can give back.


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