There has been a great deal of buzz about the reopening of schools this fall. Mayor de Blasio has plans for a partial reopening of NYC public schools, while President Trump tweeted that he expects schools to reopen or face some funding cuts. We’ve spoken to several Upper West Side public school teachers and parents who’ve shared their thoughts and concerns about the upcoming school year.
This NYT article describes the Mayor’s plan to partially reopen. The plan includes a reduction in the number of days (1-3 days) students will attend school in order to allow for smaller classroom sizes (from about 30 down to 12). The Mayor’s thinking is that smaller class sizes would not be possible if all students attended all week. The plan also has a strong focus on social distancing, which they state would be easier with fewer students in the class at a time.
Two teachers from UWS public schools came forward to share their views and concerns about a school opening in the fall. Both asked to remain anonymous.
“One of the most beautiful parts of teaching is watching students interact, learn and grow together, and that will fundamentally be different if students are told they can’t be near their classmates, can’t sit on the rug together, can’t build a lego creation together, etc.” said one of the teachers. This teacher believes that the Mayor’s proposal would not allow the environment she envisions for her students to thrive, and that it would be socially isolating for them.
Another UWS teacher understands the need for reopening, but has some serious concerns and questions.
“I get it. Schools need to reopen. We all need them to open, but if we learned anything over the past few months it’s that this virus is aggressive and some of our most vulnerable students and community members are at greater risk, both for contracting covid and having more significant learning loss.
“In order for schools to reopen, we all need to shift our priorities. Maybe we need to keep bars closed or slow the phased reopening to ensure a safe back to school. If you want me to sacrifice my life to be back at school, you need to sacrifice something too, and that might mean no manicure or no indoor dining for a bit longer than you would like. Most importantly, we need money. To do this safely, we need to up our budgets, not cut them. The city has never been able to supply me with soap or tissues, and now I am supposed to believe they’re supplying me with an endless supply of masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. And let’s touch on some of the larger questions that have failed to be answered in this reopening plan.”
The below questions, directly from an UWS public school teacher, shed light on how complicated and sensitive many issues are and how there are many factors that should be considered before setting policy.
- “In order for students to socially distance, they will all need their own supplies. Who is paying for that? And what about the supplies to send students home with to complete their learning on days they’re not in school? Of course there are a handful of schools that have PTAs strong enough to supply these materials for the whole school, but what about schools with no PTA or Title 1 schools where 90% or more of the students fall below the poverty line?
- “What happens if and when a teacher gets sick? We get 10 sick days for the year but need to quarantine for at least 14? Will a substitute be allowed in the building to cover? Which substitute will feel comfortable enough to willingly enter a classroom they know has been exposed to covid? Will all of the students have to quarantine as well? Even with less students in the building, it is impossible for staff and students to not come in contact (ex: bathrooms!). What’s the plan for tracing and isolating?
- “How do I teach remotely while also teaching in the classroom? With the proposed schedules, teachers will be asked to educate the students who are fully remote, the students who are in their classrooms on that given day, and the students that are at home on that given day. Teacher burn out is high with the normal conditions that we are put in; now we are asking them to do the equivalent of 3 jobs and with less resources … how is that going to work?
- “As a country, I think and I hope we all learned that schools are so much more than babysitters. However, we cannot ignore the prominent issue of childcare. Many public school families are essential workers and/or work hourly jobs. How can we expect these families to survive and our economy and workforce to pick up if kids are in school less than 50% of the time?
- “What happens if and when kids do not wear masks? Kids don’t just sit quietly and focus all day long, that’s not how children function and they shouldn’t be asked to. Do our politicians want to come into my classroom to ensure all kids keep their masks on all day?
- “Classrooms are built off of community and hugs, sharing emotions good and bad, problem solving and working together—how will this community building happen if we are all asked to sit 6 feet apart from each other all day long? What kind of trauma will young students experience if their day is full of fear about getting too close to a peer?
- “If only one teacher is interacting with a group of kids to minimize contact and exposure, how do I eat or go to the bathroom?
As plans are set, there is more than just the logistical aspect to take into consideration. Teachers, parents, and students have had their lives disrupted in a major way and everyone is craving a return to a sense of normalcy and structure.
“I want more than anything to be back in my second home (my classroom) with my students. Remote learning cannot replace the magic of a classroom. Kids learn by interacting and socializing and collaborating, not sitting alone in front of a screen. But does this new model even allow for that? Is having 9-12 students in one classroom all day, socially distanced with one teacher (no lunch, recess, specials) any better? The inequities of our city came to life more than ever before. I am worried to think of how many years we will see the effects of this on kids. The academic slide is real. The trauma is real. The loneliness and sadness is real. But there is nothing worse than the loss of a life.”
Many parents are struggling to find new normals for their children who are missing out on interactions and learning. Parents also need children at schools so they can to return to work. All of this is being balanced with a desire to keep their kids safe. One popular option being discussed amongst parents is outdoor learning. Jamie Cunningham, a mother of an UWS public school student, made the following statement about this:
“My child attends PS 165, which is a great school that we are happy with. His teacher was amazing throughout the lockdown and tried to support all of us the best she could. So, my stress isn’t about the school at all, but I am a bit frustrated with the DOE. I am perplexed as to why they aren’t considering allowing our teachers to take kids outside for class (if they choose to) during the first couple months of the fall term when the weather is still good. Being outdoors would make it easier to maintain social distancing and could help kids concentrate better. It would also allow more kids to attend school every day, which would be an essential help for working parents.”
Sandra Rieger, who is from Germany, believes strongly in the value of a public education. When coming to the states, she knew she wanted to send her children to public school. She offered the following thoughts on reopening:
“It was necessary to have the schools closed in March given the high number of covid cases in NYC. I supported the decision to keep schools closed for the rest of the school year. A partial reopening, or no opening at all, is an unbearable situation for many parents. I’m shocked about the complete lack of willingness to do whatever it takes to reopen schools full-time for families that want and need to send their kids.
“Germany also shut down their schools, but right from the beginning there was a strong debate on reopening them as soon as possible. Families were very vocal as a unified interest group to put pressure on government and society to make this a priority. Here in the US I hardly read an article concerning this matter during April and May. It’s just recently that there is an active, public debate about when and how to reopen schools.
“I have a couple of friends whose children attend private school and their schools plan to fully reopen in fall. I understand why that is. These parents pay huge amounts of tuition. Private schools tend to have a much better teacher/student ratio and more space. But we are facing a scenario here in NYC where the majority of private school kids will resume to (the) classroom but public school children won’t be able to. Talking about social inequality, this is nothing but shameful! A friend told me that a child of a very famous actor will be in the same class as her child, at a private school. I’m happy for that actor’s kid, but at the same time, my child won’t be given that opportunity. I tried to reach out several times via email and phone calls to the public school (UWS) my child is registered at to start Kindergarten, I have received no response and no word of information whatsoever regarding my child’s education this fall.”
More creative suggestions, like letting teachers change schools and work at schools that are close to them to avoid the subway have been voiced as well. Parent Sharon Chisom is in favor of this. She believes that “we are going to need to keep as many people out of the subway system as possible, and so many teachers live very far away from their school building. Every neighborhood has schools, and (as) the school system is already tremendously disrupted, it would be very helpful to allow teachers to apply to schools closer to home without penalty.”
Thank you to the teachers and parents who were willing to share their thoughts on the challenges we face as a community in reopening our public schools. Hopefully politicians will listen to the voices of teachers and parents in order to find solutions that are effective and safe.