Virtual Classes at New Roots Charter School Focus on Impact of Pandemic


When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March, New Roots Charter School leveraged a decade of experience with real-world learning to incorporate the coronavirus crisis into nearly every course across the curriculum.

“New Roots is designed for innovation and real-world learning,” said Tina Nilsen-Hodges, founder and principal of the public high school in Ithaca. “This is business as usual.”

Since online classes were launched, students have charted the growth of the coronavirus through mathematics, learned the science behind the rapid spread of the virus and analyzed the impact on the local economy and the global environment.

Ninth and tenth graders are also collaborating with The History Center in Tompkins County, documenting the impact of the pandemic on the community through personal journals, photojournalism, and interviews with business owners and local environmentalists to develop records for the archives.

“They’re very aware that they’re living through a pretty unusual time,” said Danielle Angie, who is spearheading the project in her Humanities class. “I tried to stress that they are part of history, and by doing this work, they are contributing to the historical record,”

Students in Grade 10 are working on a project to create custom-made media and questionnaires to give to elderly residents in local nursing homes. The project is supporting the efforts of Mutual Aid Tompkins, a group of volunteers helping people in the community cope with the pandemic.

Teacher Lee Kaltman, who teaches Sustainable Entrepreneurship, asked his 12th grade students to create solutions for what he called the “new economy” and analyze whether the $2 trillion coronavirus relief act passed by Congress would help local businesses. “Some really progressive ideas came out of that online discussion,” Kaltman said. “One student said, ‘Maybe we’re just going to have to lead a cleaner life.’ “

Seniors are researching state and federal legislation to understand how school closures will impact their graduation requirements while facing the prospect of not being able to attend a traditional graduation. English teacher Sue Schwartz said seniors are using journal writing as a strategy for capturing the historical moment, and as “a way to process and honor what they’re going through now.”

Informed by student and family feedback, the school has developed a blend of real-time instruction and independent work time supported by individual and small group conferences that allows all students to make progress in earning graduation credit in their courses.

About 87 percent of the students at the school were actively engaged in online learning within the first weeks, significantly higher than the 20% engagement rate reported nationally in the first weeks of the pandemic, said Nilsen-Hodges.

School staff have been in close contact with every student and family since the first week of closure, according to Dean of Students Jhakeem Haltom. Haltom is spearheading the school’s successful effort to ensure that all of New Roots students receive critical support with food, access to mental health services, full access to learning platforms and materials, and support for engagement in learning.

Students with Individualized Education Plans are receiving services to support success in their new online learning environment, Haltom said, including special education teachers who participate in online classes, remote resource rooms, and remote counseling services.

On Friday, April 17, New Roots teachers led a professional development day to learn more best practices for active online learning that reflect the school’s mission and vision. “Having a rich educational experience and an ongoing connection with teachers and peers helps students feel empowered to work toward their goals, even if the world has turned upside down,” Nilsen-Hodges said. “Our teachers are doing amazing work using every possible resource to engage and inspire our students.”

Parents like Kim Fezza of Ithaca, who has a 10th grader at New Roots, agree. “The dedication to our students and their emotional and educational well-being takes my breath away,” she said. “The creativity that New Roots has set forth during this time has been well organized and implemented smoothly. It is very clear why New Roots is exceptional.”

Nilsen-Hodges added that charter schools across the country have acted quickly to ensure the well-being of their students through quality educational programming and essential support during this unsettling time. “We are so proud to be among the SUNY-authorized charter schools leading the way in New York State,” she said.

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For more information, contact Michael Mazza, director of community engagement at New Roots Charter School, at