On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that schools will reopen for pre-K, elementary, and some students with disabilities next week. However, the roughly 800,000 students that are now remote learning are left in an inequitable, unfair situation. Asked on Monday at a press conference how the city planned to improve remote learning, the dominant instructional form since mid-March, the mayor responded that there were no major plans to improve online curricula and instruction; he also wasn’t very happy when a reporter questioned him about the lack of devices for tens of thousands of students across the city.
All told, the Mayor’s desperate public relations efforts and very real disasters with schools are damning and numerous: a deadly failure to close early enough in March (in the name of social justice for working families), an incompetent online program from the spring to the present, and two confused school reopenings in September and December, with resources piled into these reopenings, when the vast majorities of families had and have elected for remote.
New York City schools reopened to low attendance this fall. Only 26% of students citywide entered a building at all. Almost 15% were chronically absent, online or in-person. The Department of Education touted social-emotional learning as a priority for students, many of whom are dealing with alienation, anxiety, depression, and trauma. But teachers received stale online modules as training for this and then not much. The Learning Bridges program, which is supposed to provide care and educational support for students living housing insecure or in overcrowded housing, has been struggling with funding and support.
I work at a high school in Manhattan, where I teach English and US History, support students with disabilities, and represent the staff’s union members. Our students are predominantly Black and Brown and come from every borough. Now they are all studying remotely. COVID-19 devastated all parts of our school community this year. Many students are struggling, inevitable considering the situation the past eight months, and even before. Our school is unscreened, meaning we do not use standardized tests or attendance records in our admissions process. With about 4 in 5 of our students qualifying for free lunch, it is no coincidence that many struggle with Internet connection and work space issues. It’s hard to teach remotely, especially since most of us were trained for face-to-face settings. Many teachers have retired, including some dear to me, because of the difficulties of adapting to online teaching.
While online teaching is difficult, it’s what most school families and educators want while this pandemic rages. Our educational resources and energy should be focused on making online learning as successful as it can be. Instead, staff and students complain regularly about faulty tech provided by the DOE, while tens of thousands of students, by the city’s own admission, still have no device at all. Twelve thousand students have no Wifi connection, over half a year after the city claimed it would make appropriate Internet service available to all families via partnerships with WiFi providers who appear not to have followed through on their promise. Students deal with overcrowded, unstable living conditions. This problem is not new. Even before the pandemic, NYC had 114,000 students classified as homeless, or roughly 10 percent of all students.
The solution to these problems isn’t just to bite our lips and take a beating. Instead, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the newly minted Democratic super-majority in the state legislature need to tax the wealthiest citizens of our state, particularly its 118 billionaires who have seen a significant increase in their own wealth during the pandemic while the state of New York has struggled to escape economic depths that keep looming. The mayor could also do his part by pushing for defunding of the police and jail systems and reinvesting in housing, education, childcare, and healthcare. Instead, this summer we got smoke and mirrors, a shifting of funds among municipal agencies but little change to the police state that is New York.
It’s clear that respect, care, and passion for working people and young people is not really the priority of the governor, or the mayor, or too many of our leaders at any level. They want to go back to the status quo pre-COVID, without understanding the status quo wasn’t good enough and won’t be enough going forward.
But for those of us who know these public schools well, none of this is new or surprising. We need to organize as communities, as labor unions, and as rightfully angry citizens to demand change from our elected officials. And if they won’t do it, we need others who will. This pandemic may end in the next year or two with a properly produced and distributed vaccine, but the crisis in our schools has been going on much longer and is only beginning to get much worse.
Andrew Worthington is a high school English and special education teacher in New York City. He is a member of the United Federation of Teachers and organizes with the union’s social justice caucus: The Movement of Rank and File Educators. For more of his writings, see andrewduncanworthington.com.
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