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Is New York City Ready? Navigating the NYC School Reopening

Tigerlily Theo Hopson

August 30th, 2020


As September approaches in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is facing increasing pressure from schools and teacher unions to delay the first day of school. “I think that the contest of trying to open schools on the 10th… is nuts,” Principal Mark Federman of East Side Community School said as he drove to take a COVID-19 test. Sirens and horns blared in the background. “There are so many things we don’t know yet.”

Principal Federman is overwhelmed with tasks: from making sure East Side has proper ventilation, PPE, and sanitation supplies to organizing schedules and figuring out how to balance remote and blended students. “I feel like I’m running fourteen schools,” he said as the principal of both a middle and high school.

Many teachers fear schools will be forced to open too soon, making school buildings a hazardous environment. Teachers, unlike students, do not get the choice of remote or blended learning; only teachers with underlying health conditions can apply to teach remotely, and this leaves out those who have at-risk family members, are responsible for childcare, or who are worried about getting sick. “Teachers are scared,” Principal Federman said. “They’re excited to teach kids, but they’re scared.” They’re also angry.

Kate Jensen, 11th-grade U.S. History teacher, is maddened by the response of state, local, and federal governments who do not provide schools with the proper funding or resources and then expect teachers to “pick up the slack.”

“I’ve been a teacher for twenty-one years and it’s more of the same level of disrespect for the profession. I feel like teachers are taking the fall for safety issues, and larger issues, that are really not of their own doing. I think it’s disgusting,” Jensen said. “I am with every teacher who does not want to put their life on the line to go into a building that is not safe or ready for opening just because it's the will of political and bureaucratic leaders that say it must be so.”

Leona Gross, a 7th-grade English teacher, who has a daughter susceptible to the virus, is worried about “going back and forth and bringing something home.” She feels powerless in not being able to make her own decisions about her schedule, her classroom, and her safety. “I don’t feel supported by the Department of Education or the mayor’s office, or really anyone higher up making decisions, which is upsetting and frustrating.”

On top of the fear for one’s safety, childcare is a pressing matter. Jensen and Gross’s children both are going remote, but since they have to go into work to teach, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Who will support and help their kids when they’re not home?

“Childcare is a huge issue because teaching is a highly feminized position where a lot of women who work in the field have huge childcare responsibilities,” Jensen said, as she tried to wrangle her two young sons in the background. Jensen remarked that if the DOE needs and wants teachers to teach in-person, instead of offering “vague plans and promises… they should make an effort to guarantee childcare for every teacher who needs it.”

Gross has a six-year-old, an eleven-year-old, a thirteen-year-old, and a seventeen-year-old. She lives in Long Island and works in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Between commuting, which will take several hours, and spending her day at school teaching, she does not know how she will be able to support her younger children at home. “It worries me,” she said.

Students have echoed similar fears of going back to school as well as frustrations with the larger system. Andy Xie, a rising senior, started wearing a mask before schools were closed in March. He wanted to ensure the safety of those he interacted with. On just the second day of wearing a mask, he was confronted by the school’s police security guard at the front doors and told to take it off. “Honestly, I was just shocked... and just infuriated by this,” Andy recalled.

He did not want to cause trouble so he took the mask off. “But look at the situation now!” he said. “It is just unreasonable to not have a mask on now these days. And to think a police officer told me to take it off?” He believes that if police officers are not taking the proper precautions and wearing masks themselves, then students should not return to school.

Andy has a view of a police station right out the back of his windows. “I can say for a fact that the police officers aren't wearing masks more than half of the time. Heck, even they throw parties and celebrations, clapping their hands in joy, without masks!” He continued, “If the school police officers are there to make students and staff safe, then that is so wrong on whole new levels.”

Angelie Rodriguez, who lives in Brooklyn, chose blended learning because of her grandma’s schedule. But if it was up to her, she would stay home. “We don't have a car so the only way we can get to Manhattan is by bus or train and from the pictures that people have posted, it doesn't look very safe,” she said. She also thinks returning to school could be depressing. “There's so many rules and so many things you can't do that it doesn't even matter whether you stay home all day or go to school.”

Remote learning, however, is far from perfect. “I can’t take looking at a screen anymore,” said Matilda Molina, who is choosing the in-person option. Andy is concerned about all the screen time as well, especially because he will be doing remote again next semester. From a young age, he has had both heath and eye problems. He has stayed inside since school closed to protect his health, but that has exacerbated his eye issues. “With the quarantine, I feel like my eyes are getting worse and worse. Even so, before the outbreak, my eyes were already at a point of no return,” Andy said. “There really isn't a good option for me.”

Ama Anwar chose to stay at home because of health concerns and because she was afraid to bring something back home to her grandfather. This being said, she is worried about how remote school will look and if she will have stable Internet access. “I’m the oldest and I have three other siblings. If there are many devices being used, I’m not sure how reliable WiFi will be,” she said.

Another concern with this remote version is the lack of communication and community. Daliyah Abdel Rehim chose blended learning for the first semester because “It was extremely difficult for me to learn online.” She elaborated, “I need students around me asking questions and explaining what they are thinking.”

But, despite problems with remote learning, many teachers and students believe schools should not open at all until they receive more funding, preparation, and answers. “I’m a teacher because I love teaching and I love being around kids. I’m not a teacher because I love remote learning. But I really wish the DOE would recognize that we don’t have the manpower, we don’t have the money, we don’t have the safety resources, we don’t have the space,” Gross said about having an in-person option. 10th grader Angelie agreed and pointed out, “If indoor dining, malls, and museums aren't open yet, why would it make sense to open the schools?”

There is also a concern for teachers that after a couple of weeks or months of in-person school, cases will rise, and there will be another round of quarantine. If this happens, schools that are spending too much time trying to figure out a way to open up their doors may be unprepared to teach completely online. “Then we’ll be back in the same situation we were in March,” Gross said.

Principal Federman said that he does not have a personal preference if kids choose remote or blended, although, “It does help that a good chunk of kids are going remote.” He is confident students will be respectful in school and keep their masks on, but one of his main concerns is that outside of school these safety procedures will go out the window. He emphasized the importance for students choosing the blended option to practice proper safety after school, to be careful, and get tested regularly. “There is a bigger responsibility,” he said.

Each teacher recognizes the difficulty of making this decision in such an unprecedented time. “It’s a tough call for every family. We’d all like to go back, but what we’re going back to is going to look very different,” Jensen said. Part of choosing the in-person option is realizing that school is not going to look the same. Each student needs to do their research and be prepared for this new reality— one where masks, hand sanitizer, and fear reign supreme. 12th grader Matilda agrees, “Being afraid is our new normal.”

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