When the whole world shut down in March, parents like me faced endless challenges. School closings meant juggling remote school for our kids, our own working from home, easing our children’s anxieties about the pandemic and loss of social interaction, and the day-to-day work of running a household increased by everyone being home all the time.
Now, as a new school year looms, we are faced with another challenge: we are being forced to make a decision between sending our children back to in-person schooling, and keeping them home for remote schooling. It is a situation with no good choices — and potentially deadly consequences.
Here in New York City, reopening plans have been short on details for parents. A survey sent out to parents in June, clearly designed to allow the mayor to falsely claim that 75 percent of parents feel comfortable sending their children to school, has been used as evidence that parents feel reopening is safe.
Town halls led by both school and city-level administration have been mostly characterized by rote recitation of the same Powerpoint presentations going over the details of hybrid learning schedules but not addressing parents’ concerns of poor ventilation, schools already in disrepair, and our kids’ places of learning being turned into breeding grounds for the virus. To top it all off, the city’s contact tracing protocol for confirmed cases has huge holes and is not in compliance with the minimum protocols set out by the Center for Disease Control.
With all this in mind, on July 27, I decided to opt my seven-year-old, highly social, soon-to-be third grader, into fully remote learning for the start of the school year. This wasn’t an easy decision.
As a parent and an early childhood teacher myself, I recognize the crucial role that school plays in children’s development. School is a place for them to develop an identity and social relationships independent of their parents. School allows children to build necessary problem solving and critical thinking skills, and for some children, is the only place in their life where they receive any social-emotional support.
For my own child, knowing that September isn’t going to mean a joyful reuniting with her friends after being away for so long, and that she isn’t going to return to the warm and supportive school environment that we love, has been deeply sad, for both her and for me.
I made the decision to keep her home because the decision between remote and in-person schooling was not one between school as we knew it and computer based learning. It was a choice between keeping her home — where, despite the new difficulties I’ll face teaching her, she will be safe, loved, comfortable, and nurtured — and going to school with social-distancing measures. Such measures would mean her teacher could not hug her if she was having a rough day, she could not play in close proximity to her friends, or be allowed the freedom of movement that young children require.
It would not be the emotionally safe, responsive school that we have come to love, but something unfamiliar — on top of being dangerous.
I trust that the teachers, staff, and administrators at her school are doing the best they can given the circumstances. But the circumstances created by the pandemic and lack of leadership on the part of the mayor, governor, and school chancellor has set everyone up to fail.
No matter how I weighed the benefits of in-person instruction, my thought process always returned to one question: how many deaths am I willing to accept for in-person instruction? My answer to this nagging question is zero. As far as I am concerned, one teacher, school staff, or student death is one too many.
We are in a crisis, and in a crisis, the most important thing is survival. I recognize and grieve the fact that children, my own child included, will lose a lot academically and will be deprived of important socialization opportunities. But that loss can be dealt with when the crisis passes. Academics can be made up, therapy can help with the emotional scars. But nothing can bring someone back from the dead.
In-person schooling has already begun in districts across the country and some have already seen COVID-19 outbreaks. For the teachers and parents in those districts, the fight will be to once again close schools. After the Chicago Teachers Union threatened to strike over reopening in-person schooling, the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was forced to bow to the union’s demands and move to remote learning.
In New York and much of the northeast, we still have a month left to fight for what is right for our children and school communities, to keep schools closed and prevent such outbreaks. In both cases, the organization of parents and teachers together will be critical.
On August 3rd, four days before the deadline to opt into remote learning, and a little over a month before schools are meant to open for the year, parents, teachers, and other members of the New York public school community held a demonstration opposing the reopening of in-person school. The demand is for school to remain closed until it is safe, until New York is able to go fourteen days without a COVID-19 case, and proper testing and tracing protocols are put in place.
A safe return to school is the demand. By opting in to remote learning, parents can show that we know that the current plan is unsafe, and push our elected officials to make the right decision to keep our children, our teachers, and our school staff safe. For my part, I will continue to work alongside other parents, teachers, and school workers to make sure that schools stay closed in September.