Back in March, as New York City was emerging as the global epicenter of the pandemic, I was one of the first elected officials to call for the immediate closure of school buildings. Eventually, the mayor listened. Five months later, the governor has announced that schools can reopen for in-person classes in September if they’ve got a plan. But the only thing that’s changed since the dark days when hundreds of New Yorkers were dying every day is our behavior: wearing masks, avoiding crowds, practicing social distancing. That’s it. We are still fully in the throes of a global pandemic and there is still no vaccine. Therefore, before we can even contemplate reopening next month, basic but critical health and safety measures must be in place and fully funded. We cannot send anyone knowingly into harm’s way. Period. Anything less than extreme caution would not only put students, teachers, and their families in danger but it would risk and possibly accelerate a citywide resurgence of the virus.
Over the past few months, I have been listening to and speaking with parents and educators non-stop. As it stands today, I do not believe the mayor’s plan works. Many parents and teachers are concerned that the mayor’s back to school plan for the country’s biggest city is unsafe, half-baked, and inequitable. I’m struggling to disagree. For one, the proposed plan relies on quick testing results in order for contact tracing to be effective, and in order for us to be confident that classrooms and schools are safe throughout the year. Currently, due to nationwide lab issues, many people are still waiting 10-14 days to get COVID test results. Failure to fix this is a recipe for disaster on every level. I’ve heard from many families who are painfully aware that virtual classes are no substitute for face-to-face instruction but will keep their kids home and have opted for 100% remote learning simply because too many big, important questions remain unanswered. There is also a genuine fear that we will rush to reopen buildings in September only to close them a few weeks or months later because of a spike or a second wave. By that point, the economic and health damage will be absolutely disastrous.
Under the governor’s announcement, schools can decide to re-open for in-person classes as long as the positive COVID tests stay below 5% over a two-week period. The mayor went a step further and said he will only move to re-open schools here if the positivity rate stays below 3% – for the past two months, New York City has maintained a positivity rate of around 1%. But, in order for school buildings to reopen, school communities need a voluntary and rolling COVID testing regimen for all students and staff returning for in-person classes. We need those results to be ready within 24 hours. We need a commitment to transparency from the DOE in sharing reports of new cases with the school community. We need one dedicated school nurse for every school building. And we need the necessary staff, supplies, and funding to deep clean school buildings every night. As of right now, none of these basic things are in place. The public health guidance that has been released sounds fantastic but, for now, it’s nothing more than an unfunded proposal and therefore incomplete. There can be no cutting corners when it comes to our kids and those we entrust with their care. That’s non-negotiable.
Then there is the crucial issue of childcare. If proper safety measures were in place, the reopening plan should then be based on what would make the lives of working parents, guardians, and families easier. The currently proposed “blended learning” plan proposed by the DOE will have many working parents facing serious challenges in order to balance work with the time their kids are at home. Elementary and middle-school families especially need child care for when their kids aren’t in the classroom with this proposed plan. There are 1.1 million students in the NYC school system. A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work. I believe resuming 100% remote learning is the right answer – and clearly the only answer if the aforementioned health and safety measures aren’t surpassed – but 100% remote learning simply won’t work for many if not most working families. Therefore, even if we get to a place over the next month where parents and teachers are confident that schools will be safe in September, I still believe we should prioritize in-person options for young learners (who are less likely to transmit the virus), ELLs, students with disabilities, students in temporary housing, children of teachers and essential workers, and those with home situations that make remote learning difficult or not possible.
COVID has laid bare racial, economic, and structural inequities too stark to be ignored. Most of these long-standing disparities existed long before COVID but they must not exist after, and that starts with making sure the September decision is equitable and takes into account families of all shapes and sizes. Let’s remember, most of what dictates modern American K-12 life is a relic of a bygone “Leave It to Beaver” era with grossly outdated family norms. Going forward, we must focus on developing solutions that are inclusive of all families no matter their economic status.
Finally, the COVID crisis has also exposed and laid bare the very real dangers of having a public school system that is gravely underfunded. Concerns about transmission rates wouldn’t be so dire if it weren’t for our overcrowded classrooms. Concerns about the health and safety of children wouldn’t be so urgent if we had more nurses, more guidance counselors, and adequate medical supplies and PPE available. I know that we will get through this year come hell or high water, but in the meantime we also need to have a reckoning about how unsustainable it is to continue starving our public schools. We are not building schools that are strong enough to fully adapt to a crisis – that has become alarmingly clear.
I know you share my concerns and I know there are still many questions with no answers. I want to get this right, and I know you do, too. No perfect solution exists. We all need to work to support each other as much as possible. No matter what happens with this decision in the short-term, we have some long-term, systemic problems that we need to fix so that we are adequately prepared for the next crisis. I promise to keep working on and fighting for those solutions so we have strong schools that are ready for whatever the future holds.