Scott Stringer, the comptroller of New York City, has sons who are 7 and 8 years old. Over the last three months, like many parents, he’s tried to navigate what schools are optimistically calling “remote learning” while he and his wife both worked from home. It’s been, he told me, “one of the most challenging things I ever had to do in my life.”
So when he hears from parents desperate to understand what’s happening with schools in September, he empathizes. As in many other cities, if New York public schools reopen, students will likely be in the classroom only part-time. But no one knows if that means that students will attend on alternate days, alternate weeks or — Stringer’s preference — in half-day shifts.
“Parents have no more information today about what schools will look like in the fall than they did last March,” he wrote in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, last week.
With expanded unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of July, many parents will have no choice but to return to work by September. Even for parents who can work from home, home schooling is often a crushing burden that’s destroying careers, mental health and family relationships. And online school has had dismal results, especially for poor, black and Hispanic students.
Yet the nightmarish withdrawal of the key social support underlying modern parenthood is being presented as a fait accompli, rather than a worst-case scenario that government is mobilizing to prevent. “This school system should be leading the country on figuring out how to bring our kids back,” said Stringer. “And there’s no creativity. There’s no energy behind it.”
This isn’t just a New York City problem. At every level, government is failing kids and parents during the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that if schools reopen, students’ desks should be placed 6 feet apart, which means far fewer kids in most classrooms. But there’s been no crash program to find or build new classroom space, or to hire more teachers.
Few seem to be exploring the possibility of outdoor classes where weather allows. Experts I spoke to knew of no plans to scale up child care for parents who will need it. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, described school districts as “immobilized” by lack of funding.
Reopening schools is an excruciating challenge, but more could be done to rise to it. “There’s a missed creative opportunity to use a different teaching force,” said Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University and author of “Expecting Better” and “Cribsheet.”
She suggested hiring college-age people — who are disproportionately unemployed — as something like camp counselors. Kids, kept in pods, would attend schools for part of the day, then move to a space where counselors could oversee online learning or recess.
“Those things cost money, but having a bunch of kids lose out on their learning and having their parents not go to work also costs money,” she said.
There’s some evidence that young kids don’t transmit the coronavirus at the same rate as adults. In countries where schools have reopened, few outbreaks have been traced to elementary schools. As NPR reported, there have been no reported clusters at the child care centers that stayed open all over the country this spring to watch the children of essential workers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” Schools, it says, “should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.”
But many teachers, understandably, aren’t willing to jettison CDC guidelines. So if American kids, unlike those in most other developed countries, continue to see their education derailed by the coronavirus, the fault lies primarily with a federal government that puts out safety standards but won’t help schools meet them.
Weingarten tells me that if the Senate doesn’t pass the HEROES Act, a House bill that contains around $100 billion in support for education, she thinks many schools, including those in New York City, won’t open at all in September. To open safely, schools are going to need much more money to buy protective equipment like gloves and masks, retrofit buildings and hire more teachers and nurses.
Instead, the economic crisis is forcing budget cuts. “What are states going to do? What are localities going to do?” she asks.
My kids go to elementary school in New York City, and I found Weingarten’s words gutting. But she thinks school districts need to start leveling with parents about what we’re facing, unless Republicans in the Senate can somehow be moved to act.
“At least plan with people so that people can get their heads around ‘This is what a school will look like,’” she said. “‘This is what the schedule will be. And if we don’t get the money we’re on remote.‘”
Airlines got a bailout. Parents are on their own.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.