School Principal Luis Torres, M.S. '00 Leverages Technology to Educate Children and Support Families in the Bronx

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Luis Torres, M.S. ’00 principal of P.S. 55, a public elementary school in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, was honored with a Mercy College Alumni Achievement Award in February, shortly before the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Since New York City schools closed in March because of the pandemic, Torres has had to lead his school through this unprecedented time virtually. The school, located at the center of a public housing complex in the Bronx, educates just over 500 students, 98% of whom are from families facing economic hardship.

When P.S. 55 closed in March, technology became a blessing and somewhat of a curse. It enabled students to keep learning but created new challenges for Torres and his team: “Running a school virtually is probably twice as much work as when you're in the school building. It’s almost a 24-hour day now because people can access me at any point. We had to learn to use new technology platforms to communicate as well. Classroom instruction is different, how you hold meetings is different, how you talk with people is different.”

P.S. 55 teachers are struggling with similar challenges: “Their day has extended, and their workload has increased because now they're addressing questions via email and text and video conferencing.” Torres says that the other challenge teachers face is making sure that all their students are still receiving an education: “You might have a child who will be online for a week and then be gone for a week. And you don't know why. Is it a death in the family? Is it a technology issue? Is it something else? Not having that real-time communication with families is hard.” The school employs 12 people who contact families daily, but even that team cannot always get answers.

His empathy and support for the community extends far beyond the school walls. He helps provide free, televised educational resources through BronxNet’s Bronx Edulution – accessible educational programming for Bronx youth via BronxNet TV channels during the pandemic, sends resources to keep a local food pantry open and organizes food delivery to seniors through R.A.I.N. Senior Centers. “Even though I'm not physically in the school right now, I'm able to run a lot of supports and resources from my home,” he explained.

At Mercy College, Torres earned his master’s in education in 2000 with a concentration in technology. He praises Mercy for seeing technology as the future of education, even back then. “That’s when I gained my technology skills and started to think about education from the technology lens,” he said. “A lot of what I thought about while in school at Mercy is coming back to me now that I have to use technology as my primary means for running my school.” Torres works diligently to make sure his team members are technically equipped and understand how to make lessons engaging and effective when they are delivered remotely.

While running a school virtually is new to Torres, he has been a guiding force to provide virtual classes to students in Puerto Rico after the country was devastated by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Schools closed for months or even permanently and some students, especially those in more rural areas, did not attend school for up to a year after the hurricane. A friend asked Torres for help in thinking through how to assist the students in Puerto Rico, and Torres soon realized that technology was the best way to help them continue learning. He and his friend secured tablets, loaded them with educational software and even partnered with a local internet provider to ensure free internet access. They were able to deliver the first wave of tablets to students, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so they have not yet been able to extend the initiative to more students in Puerto Rico.

“The Puerto Rico experience forced me starting to think differently. My mindset had already shifted before schools closed here due to the pandemic,” Torres reflected. “I’d already started thinking about things like: what would it look like if I needed to do a graduation virtually? Basically anything that is done in the school, you can do virtually.”

Although technology adds value to an educational experience, Torres is the first to emphasize that even the best technology cannot replace high-quality teachers and school leaders. “The bad part about remote learning is you don't get the human interaction. I think that once the pandemic is over, these tools that we're using right now will become additional tools that we'll use in the school, a way for teachers to assign homework or assignments maybe,” Torres explained. “But children will always need human interaction.”

Torres embodies a deep sense of purpose, which drives him to push forward every day: “These are very confusing times, and nobody knows what the future will hold. But purpose outweighs all of that. When your purpose in life is to make people’s lives better, to educate, to lead schools, to inspire, that's what motivates you every day. I'm planning a graduation and career days just like I would plan them if I was in school, except they’ll be virtual. Whatever the outcome will be, I can't worry about that. My mission and goal right now is to educate and support the families I serve.”