Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced with great fanfare that he will reopen the New York City schools for pre-K through fifth grade and students with special needs. For some New Yorkers, this was cause for celebration. Ever since the schools closed in mid-November due to rising cases of COVID-19, a vociferous group of parents were loudly advocating for a speedy reopening.
But reopening the school buildings makes no difference to the majority of New York City public school kids, the approximately 74% citywide who are fully remote for the rest of the school year. In the neighborhood where I used to teach, that number is closer to 80%. According to The New York Times, the families who have opted out of in-person school are overwhelmingly people of color—the same communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Basically, when they say “We’re reopening the schools,” they mean the white schools.
As the CDC points out, people of color are disproportionately affected by coronavirus throughout the U.S., in terms of case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths. This is due to a number of factors. For one, lower socioeconomic status means less access to health care, and more underlying health conditions. Another is that people of color are more likely to have jobs as frontline or essential workers, which means more daily risk of exposure to the virus. Talk to anyone who lives in a predominantly Black community—in New York or anywhere. They’ll tell you what the virus has done to their neighborhood.
The communities that have been most severely impacted by the pandemic are, understandably, now the least likely to send their kids back to school. The result is a two-tiered system, where the white families are celebrating their grand reopening while people of color are looking at another seven months of pandemic-style learning. Is this really cause for celebration?
While remote learning can be challenging for any family, it is especially problematic for households of color. Remote learning often depends on having reliable WiFi and dependable Internet devices. Statistics confirm what I remember well from my days as a teacher in NYC: in communities of color, kids are less likely to have the iPads, laptops, and desktop computers that are common in white New York City households.
Families of color are also more likely to live in smaller spaces with more family members, which makes it difficult for every child to have a dedicated space for learning. Some of my old students, in the pre-COVID days, used to do their homework on the subway, balancing their books in their laps, because they knew it would be too distracting to try to do it at home.
The cruel irony is that the families that are most needful of the protections that schools provide—the ones who struggle to afford childcare during the school day, who depend on the schools to feed their kids breakfast and lunch, who want to know their kids will be in a safe, wholesome environment every day—are the families with the most reason to fear the rise in COVID cases. Not only were their communities hit the hardest, but their neighborhood schools are the most overcrowded, least ventilated, least sanitized facilities. (These schools were not properly cleaned in the pre-COVID days, and a lot of folks doubted that would change, even in a pandemic.) In short, theirs are the buildings that are most susceptible to an outbreak.
The city should be laser-focused on these challenges, and coming up with creative solutions. Maybe not every single problem gets solved, but these are the things the mayor should be talking about in public. He certainly shouldn’t be patting himself on the back because he opened the schools for a paltry 26% of the population. What will he do to improve remote learning? Where is the concern for the majority of kids in the city who are staying home?
There is already a significant achievement gap between the upper middle class schools in New York City, which are predominantly white, and the schools in Black neighborhoods. The predominantly white schools have higher graduation rates, higher GPAs, higher college acceptance rates. The gap emerges as early as kindergarten and it only widens over the years. The new de facto segregation of the COVID era—white kids roaming the spacious, socially-distanced halls of their school buildings, while Black kids struggle to get their schoolwork done at home—will only exacerbate the existing achievement gap. Next year, when all those kids return to in-person learning, how will the schools help them make up for lost time? How can they compete with the students who have gained on them by almost a whole year?
Mayor de Blasio has basically acknowledged that in-person learning is a superior system, and that the challenges of remote learning won’t be fully addressed by the end of the school year. The idea seems to be that, with a vaccine on the horizon, the problem will more or less work itself out. We will muddle through with this two-tiered system until the pandemic ends and we go back to normal.
But in the meantime, what is being done to support the children who are trying to learn at home? The negligence here is inexcusable. Every teacher’s duty is to care for every soul whose name appears on your roster, to move heaven and earth to ensure the success of every child. No educator, no public official, no human being should accept this flagrant racial injustice. To celebrate the (predominantly white) 26% who are returning to school is to ignore the struggles of the majority who are being left behind.
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