a classroom with desks spaced evenly throughout
A socially-distanced second-grade classroom at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School. (Photo/Gabriel Sanchez)

Our national shame: Why are our schools being left to fend for themselves?

The principal of my son’s public Brooklyn elementary school isn’t getting much of a vacation this summer.

Mr. Foreman is busy fielding questions from anxious parents, conducting Zoom forums for the school community and sending out frequent emails with updates about what to expect in the upcoming school year (Spoiler: There’s a lot he doesn’t know yet). He’s trying to create a workable school schedule that brings no more than 230 students at a time into a school that normally houses several hundred more. He’s pricing out outdoor canopies so classes can be held on the playground and in the nearby city park, even in the rain.

He’s doing all this with an unusually incomplete idea of what enrollment will look like come the fall; students are allowed to opt for full-time remote learning, and some families are considering pulling their children out of school entirely and homeschooling or hiring private teachers. Others are moving out of the city altogether.

In theory, fewer enrolled students would be good, reducing the number of those who wouldn’t be allowed into the school building on any given day. But when a school’s enrollment drops, so does its budget, and the city’s pandemic education plan requires one teacher for each downsized classroom of 10 students.

The Covid crisis already has forced the New York City Department of Education to slash $40 million allocated to schools and implement a hiring freeze. Plus, many teachers are expected to qualify for medical exemptions that will keep them working from home, so Mr. Foreman has no idea of how many teachers he’ll be able to bring into classrooms.

He’s trying to figure out how on earth the school’s small custodial staff can deep-clean every classroom on a daily basis, which staff members he can spare to take students’ temperatures as they enter school, and who will teach the kids who are learning online on the days they can’t go to school.

It’s an impossible puzzle.

What I am left to wonder is why Mr. Foreman has to figure out so much of this on his own. Our local governments should be erecting tent cities in public parks to create open-air classrooms that will accommodate as many children as possible for in-person learning in the coming school year. It’s warm enough in most places to be outside in fall and spring, and when winter comes, well … the kids will have a good story for their grandchildren.

Our national government should be mobilizing an infantry of college students and recent graduates to serve as teaching assistants and work with kids when higher risk veteran teachers cannot. And all of this should have gotten started well before we began opening bars and restaurants with Covid-19 infections still far from under control.

The stakes could not be higher. Students have already suffered serious learning loss from the abrupt transition to online education that happened when schools were closed in the spring. Getting them back to in-person school needs to be a top priority if we’re not going to entrench learning disparities along racial and economic lines, and if we’re serious about getting parents back to work and energizing the economy.

Students with disabilities and students who endure abuse at home are especially at risk. At the same time, health precautions, especially for teachers, administrators and staff, need to be taken seriously.

Our national shame is that the federal government pretty much ignored this education crisis until a couple weeks ago, when President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos started to demand that all schools reopen at full capacity in the fall — with no guidance or material support on how to achieve that safely.

In this leadership vacuum, we’re seeing that a state like Florida, where the virus rages out of control, is mandating that schools open five days a week, whereas a city like New York, where infections are down, is maintaining caution and requiring hybrid learning models (in-person and remote).

There’s no consistency, and it seems inevitable that we’re barreling toward another school year marked by interruptions.

There’s evidence to suggest that children may be less likely to infect adults with Covid-19 than we initially feared, and it’s possible that down the line we can ease some precautions currently recommended by the CDC, especially in the early grades, in areas where Covid infections are under control.

But without leadership and decision-making that’s led by data, parents, teachers and students will lose their trust in schools to take care of them. And that’s an immeasurable loss.

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.