The Pandemic Is Putting Parents in an Impossible Situation

A chat with Benjamin Hart

As Americans struggle to plan for the fall school term amid a pandemic that isn’t going away, New York City unveiled a preliminary protocol to bring students back and provide some much needed relief for parents. But it isn’t nearly enough. Ben Hart spoke with New York contributing editor Lisa Miller about the limitations of New York’s approach and the desperate need for more creative strategies in what is already a dire crisis.

Ben: On Wednesday, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced a public-schools reopening plan that involves the return of some in-person learning — but a fraction of the pre-pandemic norm. According to the Times, “there will probably be no more than a dozen people in a classroom at a time, including teachers and aides, a stark change from typical class size in New York City schools, which can hover around 30 children.” The plan, which is subject to change (and the whims of Governor Cuomo) is a compromise that has seemed to satisfy no one. As someone with a high-school-age daughter who attends an NYC public school, how does it strike you on first glance?

Lisa: There’s too much unknown, even in what you just sent me. One day a week is a lot different than three days a week. But for some added context: Just before this conversation I received a note from our daughter’s school, saying that because of crowding, small spaces, narrow hallways, and the number of teachers requesting to stay home from work, they can’t even offer part-time in-person learning. So it will be exclusively online except for a small number of kids with special needs. And I can’t imagine her school is the only one like that.

Parents can’t plan. Kids can’t learn. Parents can’t work. Kids can’t see each other. It’s an unbelievable crisis. And no one has talked sufficiently about overcrowding. SO MANY NYC public schools are overcrowded, especially in underserved neighborhoods. The CDC can mandate distancing requirements, but the schools can’t comply within their infrastructure limits.

Ben: When cities think about opening schools, there is obviously a really tough balance to strike between kids and teachers’ health on the one hand — especially considering the infrastructure limitations you laid out —  and the widespread child-care and work crises on the other. Given that New York’s virus rate has plummeted from the awful highs it experienced in the spring, is the city not pushing hard enough to send more kids back to school? Or is this kind of caution the only way to go right now, in your view?

Lisa: I don’t think anyone is making kids going back to school enough of a priority. The airlines got a $25 billion federal bailout and now they’re running at full capacity so they can get back to making money, while our kids are suffering without each other and without their teachers in order to comply with what’s responsible. So first off, I think our values are completely screwed up. Where is the federal money to help schools figure this out? And where is the leadership?

Ben: What, you mean President Trump just threatening state governments if they don’t reopen schools isn’t enough for you?

Lisa: Nope. Justin Davidson wrote a great essay in our magazine suggesting that theaters, retail spaces, office spaces — which in NYC are all sitting empty — donate their square footage to the schools. I think this is an amazing idea. But it requires creativity, investment from the private sector, imagination, and a refusal to take things as they are.

Ben: Somehow it’s difficult to imagine our mayor really seizing the moment in that way, isn’t it?

Lisa: Totally. But we know there are lots of Silicon Valley types very interested in improving education. I think this is a moment for big public-private partnerships. Access to technology — more iPads and tablets and Wi-Fi to underserved kids is important. Totally important. But what kids need is to go to school.

And I’m convinced — having lived in Brooklyn this whole time, from the peak of the pandemic till now — that there are ways to be with each other and be responsible and safe, and the city (and state) have to do everything they can to help schools and teachers achieve that.

Ben: The consensus among parents seems to be that even aside from all the problems created by kids being at home all the time, online learning just isn’t very effective. Have you found that to be true? And if the city could get to a hybrid model where the online part was, say, cut in half, would that make much of a difference?

Lisa: In my house online learning was a total bust. But kids are different, and I have heard stories of kids who really thrived online.So I think in part it’s a matter of giving kids what they need to learn best, which is always part of what school does.

My kid is a teenager, and this is a purely self-interested view. But teenagers are at the exact age when they need to be out of the house and with each other, not holed up looking at their screens all day and all night. So more emphasis needs to be put on how the city plans to get kids together, not how it plans to keep them apart. I am really concerned about the mental health toll on these children (of all ages). I’m hearing about little kids who are anxious and angry and teenagers who are essentially in hibernation. No amount of “beefed up” online learning will solve that.

Ben: Yeah, it doesn’t feel like society has reckoned with all those sorts of aftereffects at all.

Lisa: No. But I don’t know a parent who isn’t very concerned about his/her child. And the learning in most cases is the least of it. And we are in an affluent neighborhood and have lots of resources. What’s happening to the kids who live in single-parent homes where the parent is an essential worker?

Ben: Right — this schools reopening plan, like so much else, would be easier for the affluent to negotiate.

Lisa: Totally. Yes, we can support our kids with tutors and extra activities and — whatever — country houses and team sports if they’re happening. Kids in underserved neighborhoods have none of that. It’s beyond shameful.

Ben: So it sounds like you think the city (and state, and country) should be getting a lot more creative in how it approaches this problem, and be approaching it as an absolutely essential one to solve — existential, not just important.

Lisa: Yes. We used to say “children are our future.” Now it’s like, children are underfoot and impeding our ability to do our jobs, but, whatever, we’ll keep them home because we can’t figure out what else to do with them. It’s not okay, as we say in our house. AND if the virus stays at this level in New York — big IF — there ARE ways to stay safe if people can put their heads together and put some money and some energy and creativity into it.

I mean, in a moment where we care more than we ever have (in my memory) about inequity, are we really going to be okay with these inequities in education? Where the kids who go to private schools with playing fields are going to continue to get their education and those who happen to go to public schools with narrow hallways are not?

Ben: I’ve been seeing a rising tide of frustration and anger on all this in the last few days — a New York Times piece that ricocheted around the internet seemed to capture the feelings of many.

Lisa: I do think there is increasing pressure on the schools to figure this out. And that’s a good thing. And actually, not only the schools, but de Blasio and Cuomo and private and corporate stakeholders. They can’t just blow all of us off. We are proud to live in NYC and send our kids to the great schools here. They are risking the economy of the city, because many people who can afford to leave will leave. And they can’t want that.