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Kids frustrated by online learning looked forward to going back to school in New York City next week, but re-opening has been postponed. Credit: Sarah Garland/The Hechinger Report

NEW YORK—The ritual of back-to-school has always been as predictable as paying taxes. First-day jitters. Waiting for buses. Bugging kids about homework, after asking the inevitable “How did school go today?”

A timeless routine, now broken by massive human failures: a raging pandemic, fires and floods fueled by climate change, and, in New York, a twice-delayed reopening debacle in the nation’s largest public-school system that is enraging parents, confusing educators and leading to increasing despair that school as we once knew it will never return.

We grownups probably could have avoided much of the chaos and trauma we’ve thrust our children into this fall.

We chose not to.

With schools shuttered since the onset of the pandemic in March, complications and confusion have reigned nationally. In Boston, a delayed virtual start comes amidst declining enrollments and a wait for 20,000 missing Chromebooks. In Washington State, most schools planned virtual-only instruction, but those who did not then had to cancel all in-person classes due to poor air quality – and some even postponed online learning.

Schools in areas of Florida and Alabama are closed this week after havoc wreaked by Hurricane Sally, while many parts of California – ravaged by both wildfires and coronavirus – are struggling to get sufficient technology delivered for virtual classes. In suburban Chicago, even as schools reopened virtually, some districts are figuring out ways to supervise online learning in schools, for a price.

As our leaders flounder, the likelihood that public schooling may never recover  becomes more certain by the day.

One of the few large cities that planned for an in-person opening, New York City has twice moved back a date on the calendar that loomed as a lifeline for working parents — including many of the teachers who wonder what to do with their own kids because many must still report to school buildings.

On Thursday, cries of rage and disappointment followed the last-minute announcement from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza that most children would wait at least another week to return to school buildings. Frustrated and teary parents and educators threw up their hands and urged city officials to “Get it together!”

City officials have changed plans multiple times, bowing to pressure from local educator unions. The mayor offered no apologies, blaming staffing shortages that critics said the city should have predicted in the spring. “Every step we take will be deliberate,” the mayor tweeted. New York City parents, he said, are “a lot more pragmatic than you might imagine.”

Overwhelmed parents in New York City and elsewhere beg to disagree, and are hardly shrugging their shoulders and moving forward. Many have absolutely no idea how they will cope.

“We should have had a phased reopening all along, planned out in June,’’ tweeted Robin Lester Kenton, vice president of marketing and communications at the Brooklyn Public Library. “I am about to have a panic attack trying to manage all of this, while working full time.”

Some desperate teachers have called their students’ parents, asking them for childcare help. On Twitter, a teacher wrote, “I’m a single parent and my children both have to stay home and do remote learning next week, but I have to be AT SCHOOL to teach remote learning.”

The uncertainty in New York may only get worse, as more families opt for remote learning and throw schools’ plans further into chaos. According to a local reporter, one principal told parents: “I’m embarrassed by the city’s response to this. We have been crying for the last half hour. If you have friends who you can form pods with, DO IT!”

Related: We can make pods equitable if we work together

As the public school system has teetered, already many parents across the country have turned to religious or private schools, or created smaller learning pods, hired private tutors or are considering play and learning programs that in some cases can cost close to $3,000 a month.

Those who can’t afford any help face despair.

“The coronavirus has only intensified inequities in education, in employment, in health care, and in other areas that already disproportionately impact people of color and low-income families,” John King, the former U.S. education secretary, now head of the nonprofit Education Trust, said in testimony this summer, urging Congress to spend an additional  $175 billion to make schools safer and avoid teacher layoffs.

One of the most painful aspects of the entire debacle is watching anger directed at already underfunded public schools and the eroding trust among parents and educators. This loss of confidence in the system will no doubt make it hard to rebuild it when – if – things go back to normal. As our leaders flounder, the likelihood that public schooling may never recover becomes more certain by the day.

Public school advocates like activist, actress and former New York State gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon are among those who have complained that the city’s planning process failed children in ways large and small. “The care and investment given to restarting television and film production in New York looks nothing like the uncertain, chaotic, shamefully underfunded and profoundly unsafe approach to reopening the public schools, which serve 1.1 million children, nearly three-quarters of them deeply underprivileged,” Nixon wrote in an op-ed this week.

The chaos can be laid squarely at the feet of government leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, who have provided little direction or financial support for schools as they face cataclysmic circumstances, largely of our own making.

Young people, for their part, have begged for action on climate change, because school buildings were already flooding and burning down. They have called for more funding for teachers and to fix antiquated buildings that now pose potentially fatal risks in places where the pandemic rages out of control. And in New York, they’ve demanded that leaders put thought and care into an equitable reopening plan that restores trust in the system.

So far, the grownups are letting them down. We can only hope that the takeaway for our kids isn’t to give up on our nation and our democracy, but to watch the failures of their elders and keep fighting for a new path forward.

This story about reopening of schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report. She started out in journalism reporting on murders and mayhem in New York City for New York Newsday and the New York Times, before joining...

Letters to the Editor

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  1. It’s not just NYC. I live in Rhode Island. The governor insisted all schools except in two communities open in person–after delaying the date by two weeks. Yet teachers in other communities are complaining about schools with crumbs still on desks from last March, about air filters uncleaned, about rooms without adequate ventilation. What were they doing all summer? The teachers were probably making six different lesson plans for each day: in person, hybrid, on line. . . . Some schools did plan and are doing well, but the only two I know of for sure are private schools, one small and one very wealthy.

  2. Why do none of these stories reference existing virtual technology beyond Zoom? Where is there a discussion about using EdX curriculum resources or other online courseware? Why must schools ONLY depend on laptops when products like Amazon’s Kindle handle Zoom meetings at a fraction of the cost? And why are there only full time and part-time options, when combinations and project-based curriculum has a rich and very available history of success for both teachers and students? If it worked for Montessori why are we still ignoring it?

  3. We have four children doing remote learning and spread across three different schools. The best model, by far, has been the Montessori school with project-based learning, weekly work-plans with plenty of asynchronous time, and a rational understanding that every child cannot be in every online class session every day.

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