an empty classroom with rows of desks

We love our kid’s school, but it perpetuates an unfair system

When school closed in March, I girded myself to get through what I thought would be five weeks of my kids learning at home.

I marshaled as much energy, optimism and can-do attitude as I could by focusing on the scene I imagined would take place when school finally opened again: teachers lining the playground, cheering for the students as they returned, the students grinning at their friends.

This time at home would be a challenge, but we would pull together, get through, and at the end of the road, we’d look back and be proud that what we had done had made a difference.

Now we know that that scene will never take place.

School never came back this school year, and it remains in doubt what will happen in the fall. In New York City, it seems the best we can hope for is a blended schedule of online and in-class learning, with the school day choreographed to minimize human interactions. What I imagined as a finite stretch of staying at home and social isolation is instead becoming a new way of operating in the world, of mitigating risk while still trying to carry on with our lives.

The future of school is at the forefront of most parents’ minds: We’re simultaneously aware that our children are losing ground academically and that the start of the school year is the foundation of adults being able to resume their normal work lives. I believe that safety has to come first, and I’m grateful to the teachers’ unions that have put forward safety guidelines. I’m also stunned that politicians seem to be more concerned with reopening restaurants and hair salons than grappling with the difficult dilemmas involved in returning our kids to the classroom.

My thoughts also have been consumed with school for another reason: As our country undergoes a very necessary period of self-examination around racism, I’m aware that as a parent, the racist system that I’m most directly involved with on a daily basis is our segregated education system.

When my oldest started kindergarten, I had the vague idea that by enrolling my kids in an urban public school, I would be tapping into the rich diversity of the city. But his school is largely white, in one of the most segregated school districts in the country.

We could tell you a story about how we ended up in our neighborhood and why the school is a fit for our child. But at the end of the day, we participate in and perpetuate an unfair system.

I’m ashamed of the way white parents flippantly discuss schools as “good” or “bad.” I’m angry that education is so egregiously underfunded that it is a resource white parents feel they need to hoard. I’m sad that the pandemic means our school’s PTA is coming up short in its fundraising and will have to cut enrichment programs; I’m also maddened that PTA fundraising widens the education gap between rich and poor schools.

When policy changes are proposed to support school integration — whether through overhauling a local school assignment process or changing entrance requirements — white families often fight them tooth and nail. I attended a community meeting in Brooklyn about plans to open a new family shelter. Parents railed against the possibility that shelter families might send their kids to the local public school; the quality of a school, said one mother, depends on PTA donations, and shelter families won’t be able to donate.

For white parents who say that Black lives matter, the most basic thing they can do is to support policy changes to lower the gatekeeping that is endemic to education. Unexpectedly, the pandemic is offering an opportunity to envision a new way of doing things. Due to online learning, New York City schools eliminated standardized testing and letter grades for last semester; the typical admission screening process for middle and high schools has evaporated for the time being.

Our children will return to school, if not with celebration, then with caution and hopes for the best. The pandemic gives us the opportunity to reimagine many of the ways we do things in our society. The question is if we will take the chance to do them better.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.