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NYC's disastrous start to the school year is a cautionary tale

I felt both anxious and excited as I imagined how in just a few short days, on September 21, the space would fill with student voices and energy. We would finally be transitioning from fully virtual to hybrid classes.

Amanda Geduld
Amanda Geduld

Yet a few hours later, while I led ice breakers via Zoom with my new English class in an attempt to build community through a computer screen before the start of classes, my students suddenly flooded our chat box with frantic questions and extreme disappointment.

They had just learned of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's 11th-hour decision, made in coordination with teacher union leaders, to delay in-person learning yet again -- news that came as a complete surprise to me, their teacher, as well.
Under the mayor's new plan, in-person learning would be rolled out through a "staggered start" model, in which 3K and Pre-K students would return first, followed by elementary schools, and finally by high schools in October. Students who had opted into fully remote schooling would still begin academic courses via Zoom on the 21st. Those who had opted into blended, or hybrid, learning would join their peers in fully remote learning until their grade brackets returned to the classroom in-person.

Since neither teachers nor school leaders were formally notified of this decision in advance, I was completely caught off guard. After learning of this significant change from my students, I was only able to confirm it via a Twitter push notification. In the midst of an already stressful moment, it felt particularly disempowering and destabilizing to learn such significant news in this manner.

School Chancellor Richard Carranza and de Blasio's penchant for last-minute, slapdash decision-making and their willful disregard for teacher and student well-being has consistently plagued New York City's approach to school reopening plans.

As early as late last spring, teachers and union leaders began repeatedly to raise grave concerns about schools' readiness and safety and warned of an impending staffing crisis -- many raising their voices publicly as summer drew to a close.

Despite having six months' lead time, the mayor and the chancellor did not unveil their initial plan of hybrid schooling until just weeks before buildings were set to open in early September, leaving schools with grossly inadequate time to prepare to welcome students back.

Since this initial announcement in August, the city has pushed back start dates multiple times, each time announcing what teachers, administrators, and parents had been flagging all summer: schools were not ready or equipped to reopen.

To be clear, I am not disputing the delay itself -- I, like so many of my colleagues, agree that schools were not ready to reopen. What I object to is the frantic and haphazard way, time and again, that this crisis has been mismanaged.

That teachers are being asked to respond to students' questions about safety and future learning that we are unprepared to answer is unacceptable. In repeatedly failing to act on warnings and concerns from teachers and union leaders -- not to mention families -- the mayor and chancellor have broken faith and trust with us all. As such, they owe us greater voice and transparency going forward about how we -- teachers, students, parents and staff -- will get the resources and protection we need. So far, we are still waiting.

Yet, the blame does not fall on Carranza and de Blasio alone; education budgets were slashed at the state level while waiting for federal help. Without better support from state and federal leaders, it will be nearly impossible to safely reopen and staff our schools -- until the country finally devotes the resources that public education so desperately needs.

In the meantime, students and families will suffer.

Typically, I spend the entire summer reworking curriculum, incorporating new texts and attending professional development sessions to strengthen my pedagogy. This year, that was largely impossible as we had no idea if we would be teaching online or in person, if we would be teaching all students or only those who came in person, or if we would be seeing students once a week or five times a week. These environments require vastly different tools and timelines of curricula.

This entire process has made me feel deprofessionalized -- as though the mayor does not care what we teach or how well we teach it as long as we are physically present in the school building to monitor and babysit students. The lack of decisive decision making and transparency has also trickled down to parents, who have not been able to plan for a return to work.

Unsurprisingly, this has disproportionately impacted women and communities of color.
Worst of all, the flaw-riddled hybrid model itself is emblematic of the overall lack of savvy, informed preparation and consideration from NYC leadership. By August, 13 of the 15 largest school districts had already made the decisive choice to remain fully remote. Our city's leadership was alone in its refusal to announce a plan at all. Unlike NYC, Chicago announced that they would conduct virtual classes through the end of the first quarter and would regroup again at the start of the second to "assess the state of Covid-19 and the safety of switching to a hybrid learning model."

They expressed their desire to respect the wishes of families and educators and provide ample time for planning. Finally, they focused on improving remote learning and access, ensuring that students would receive live instruction from their teachers every day, unlike in the spring.

Therefore, from the start, many teachers (myself included) have been skeptical of the hybrid model. Even if executed well, doctors have warned that a hybrid model was, in many ways, the most dangerous in terms of viral spread.

And, even if run flawlessly, it still would not fix any of the three main issues it set out to address: providing childcare, thereby allowing for a reopening of the economy; preventing any further disturbance to students' ability to learn; and attending to students' social-emotional needs for peer interaction.

Under the current hybrid model, students are slated to attend school anywhere from one to three days a week, inevitably still requiring supervision for the remaining weekdays. Furthermore, different schools have vastly different rotating schedules; this leaves families with children who attend multiple schools with a particularly Sisyphean task of scheduling a matrix of childcare coverage.

When students are in school, most will remain in a self-contained pod with one to two teachers for the entirety of the day. And while this will hopefully curb viral spread, it means that they still will not receive in-person instruction. Instead, they will attend virtual classes, livestreamed by teachers who often are sitting in a neighboring room in the same building.

Under this model, teachers will primarily serve as babysitters, monitoring pods of students attending Zoom classes, and so they inevitably are unable to teach as many academic periods each day. During remote learning last spring, I offered live classes to each of my English sections for 45 minutes a day, five days a week, but with the current plan, I will be livestreaming classes to students for just 30 minutes twice a week.

This shifts the bulk of student learning to asynchronous, independent work, effectively slashing traditional learning time by more than half. Students who choose to remain fully virtual will be equally impacted by these decisions, as schools scramble to piece together schedules that work regardless of a student's environment. At this point, we will begin the year weeks behind our typical start date and over a month behind our counterparts in other major cities across the country; our students are losing essential instruction time as politicians drag their feet.

Technology issues have also not been properly addressed; many students remain without sufficient Wi-Fi or access to devices. The city has committed to providing students in need with iPads, but there have been significant delays in distribution since March, forcing students even further behind.

As of Tuesday, many students were still awaiting devices and struggled to tune into classes and complete coursework through cell phones and hotspots. Throughout the summer, the city was well aware that at least some portion of learning this fall would be remote, yet they did not do nearly enough to implement the technological infrastructure necessary to support our most vulnerable students.

Finally, the current hybrid learning model does not address the social-emotional needs of students; in fact, it could exacerbate their trauma. As frequently mentioned in arguments demanding a return to in-person schooling, students require both social interaction and consistency in structure. Repeatedly altering major plans at the last minute deprives students of the stability they developmentally demand now more than ever.
And asking students to remain 6 feet apart with masks on and headphones in while in the school building, will not provide them with any meaningful peer interaction. Either they will strictly abide by these rules and remain isolated, or they will break them, putting themselves, their teachers and their families at risk.
And these are merely the issues that would arise if the hybrid model had been well-planned and executed. Yet, the mayor and the chancellor appear to be winging it, announcing improbable solutions that they are ill-equipped to deliver -- such as when they announced days before teachers returned that we could hold classes outdoors, but provided neither funding nor planning time.
In recent days, according to The New York Times, 100 NYC school buildings have reported cases of Covid-19, even though the only people in school buildings have been adults who ostensibly are better suited to social distancing and mask wearing than students. I can only imagine what the numbers will look like once my students finally arrive.

When I arrived at the school building on Monday the 21st, there were multiple families waiting in the lobby with their young students, ready to drop them off for the first day of in-person school. They were confused, upset and frustrated to learn that as of last week, the mayor had pushed back the start date. They were not notified in a clear manner and had no idea they were now responsible for childcare until at least October.

The mayor, chancellor, and Department of Education have let down teachers, students and parents over and over. And this is not just problematic for our 1.1 million students. We are the only large school district insisting on reopening in-person education, and the rest of the country is watching.
Our leadership's failure to make this happen with comparatively greater resources and significantly lower infection rates will have detrimental consequences across the nation. According to a plan recently approved by the school board in Miami-Dade County -- the fourth-largest district in the US -- will be able to return to their classrooms next month.

Tragically, much of New York City's travail could have been avoided if our local and state government had welcomed teacher ingenuity and voices. All along, we have begged to play a role in reopening plans, sending forth valuable ideas and creative solutions that have gone unacknowledged.

For example, high school education could have remained virtual until 2021, freeing up space for students 13 and under to spread out across schools. This would allow all younger students to attend school five days a week, bringing sharp relief to families struggling to piece together childcare. We could then staff the additional classrooms by tapping into the brilliance of author and social justice scholar Monique Morris, who in previous education crises has suggested building a corps of local community members to supplement the teaching force.

I am not suggesting that this is a perfect solution nor am I arguing that a panacea exists. I am simply suggesting that there are creative ideas out there that are being ignored. Let's start tapping into the expertise of educators rather ignoring them.

New York City's leaders have failed all of us, but teachers still want to help. We work in classrooms every day from September to June, and we're experts at engineering inventive solutions to make do in tight situations. Allowing us to collaborate with city officials and medical professionals could put our invaluable practical knowledge to use to help devise a more concrete, feasible plan that properly serves our students and communities.

Teachers and students desperately want to be back in our classrooms, and we can help get our city there. We just need a seat at the table.

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