I Taught In NYC Public Schools––It’s No Surprise They’re Struggling With Reopening

by Nick Ash
I Taught In NYC Public Schools, And It’s No Surprise They’re Struggling With The Reopening
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New York City just announced they are pushing off their school reopening date to September 21st. They would normally start right after Labor Day, but they need a little extra time to get ready and to make sure they’re in compliance with city and state guidelines for COVID safety.

For anyone who is familiar with the New York City schools, it is no surprise that they’re struggling. I taught in the city for years, and I can tell you: these guidelines are especially challenging for city schools, and it is near-impossible to implement any type of change, let alone the types of changes these guidelines would require.

The New York State and city guidelines are based on the same principles as safety guidelines anywhere in the country: reduce the density of kids in the classroom to allow for social distancing, provide well-ventilated (or outdoor) learning environments, use masks to minimize virus transmission. The thing is, the situation in the New York City public schools makes these principles particularly hard to follow.

Before the COVID crisis, we were cramming as many bodies into a classroom as would humanly fit. The official limit is 34 students per high school class (which is ridiculous in itself: how do you teach 34 students at once?) but there are ways to work around that and get even more kids into the room. For instance, you could have a small group of students who are technically in their own special class—and then schedule that class to meet in the same room, at the same time, as the other 34. It wasn’t strictly on the up-and-up, but it happened anyway, and you’d end up with 36, 38, 40 teenagers packed into a classroom. Students occupied every inch of floor space in the room, even in front of the classroom door, surely a fire hazard. Forget social distancing: kids were shoulder to shoulder, like on New York’s crowded commuter trains.

The administrators weren’t being deliberately cruel. There was nowhere else to put those kids. Either there wasn’t another room available, or there wasn’t another teacher available to sit with them. The school was expected to serve a certain number of kids, but the facility and the school budget gave you about 75% of the space and the staff you needed to do it. No matter how you did the math, the problem didn’t come out right. You could complain about it, you could scream about it (and we did!), but it wouldn’t make any difference. In the end, you worked with what you were given, or else you walked away.

So how do you take a situation like that, and implement social distancing? Even if you reduce the number of students by half—as the hybrid learning plan will certainly do—it’s still 15-20 kids per room. Still too many. What are you going to do, have students hanging out the window? Set up their desks on the fire escape? Rural and suburban schools are looking at outdoor classes as a possible solution, but this is not a realistic option in inner-city schools, where you take one step out the door and you’re right in the middle of a crowded city street.

You have the same problem with ventilation. Some city schools have A/C, some don’t. Where there are air conditioners, they are hardly the modern, state-of-the-art models that can filter out the virus. Some classrooms don’t even have a window.

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If you have a mental image of what a classroom looks like—erase it. With every classroom filled to capacity, we taught kids in any space that was available: a counselor’s office, a hallway, a storage room, a cellar. I myself taught in a tiny, windowless room for years before a safety inspector made a surprise visit and said we couldn’t use it anymore. With dozens of bodies in the room, and no ventilation whatsoever, that classroom heated up like a sauna. We were supposed to keep classroom doors closed and locked for security reasons, but we propped the door open because it was the only way to breathe. At one point I dragged a large standing fan into the room, a dusty old machine that looked like it came from 1975. It worked, but it made a noise like a helicopter landing—I had to shout to be heard over the sound of the fan—and it took up floor space, too, in a room where the kids were already packed together like sardines.

If the city’s ventilation task force is going to catch all of these problems, and force the schools to fix them, that would be great. But I’m not sure that’s really going to happen. More likely, the schools will do their best to comply, but in cases where they’re not able to follow the safety rules, they’ll violate them, just as they have always done.

The students are already practically panting for breath in these hot, sweaty, crowded, unventilated rooms. And now we’re expecting them to keep masks on their faces? We’ve seen that even adults are struggling with the whole mask thing—refusing to wear them, or else refusing to wear them correctly—and we know that it can only be harder for children and adolescents.

I can tell you that, in some New York City schools, it can be very difficult to enforce rules consistently. Simple, basic social norms that you may take for granted—Take off your hat! Put away your cell phone! Sit in a chair! Don’t stand on the table!—can turn into protracted battles. Students like to test their teachers’ limits, find out what they can get away with. With the masks, we will have to take a firm stand: no funny business. But how many students will let their masks sag below the nostrils, or take unscheduled “mask breaks” in the hallway or the middle of class—and how many respiratory droplets will be released into the sweaty, unventilated air before a teacher swoops in to correct the behavior?

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And what about the kids who want to comply, but for whom getting all these masks is a financial hardship? Some of these kids don’t have enough clothes to wear, and need assistance paying for their school supplies. Are the schools (and their budgets) ready to provide masks for every child, every day?

The most heartbreaking part is that the majority of these kids belong to the populations that are most vulnerable to COVID. We know that the number of hospitalizations, intubations, and deaths due to COVID are disproportionately high among people of color. According to recent data, 67% of public school students in New York City are Black or Hispanic. (In the school where I taught, it was more like 80%.) The kids whose schools are least prepared to protect them from COVID are most likely to suffer the most severe effects.

From all this, one might conclude that remote learning is the best option. Unfortunately, this also presents special challenges for New York City kids. Remote learning is most effective in households that have reliable Internet access, and laptops or tablets for each child to use, while underprivileged kids are least likely to have these. Some schools are preparing to distribute iPads and laptops for days when students are learning at home, but for households that don’t have WiFi, this isn’t even a bandaid. Moreover, underprivileged families are most likely to rely on the public schools for lunch and breakfast, and for childcare during the day when the parent or guardian is working. For these families, keeping the kids at home just isn’t an option.

It’s hard to imagine a real solution to these problems, short of a complete overhaul of the New York City public school system. How can the schools provide a safe learning environment in a pandemic, when they could barely provide a safe learning environment in the first place? Nevertheless, teachers and administrators will do what they always do: they’ll take a bad situation and use every resource available to try and make it a little bit better. As for what that will look like, I guess we’ll see on September 21st—or whenever they decide they’re really ready.