When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shuttered the nation’s largest public school system last March, I had a feeling the pandemic wasn’t going to be over quickly. My friends assumed schools would be closed for a couple of weeks, maybe a month.
Even I half-doubted my pessimism, and I operated under what I felt was a relatively safe assumption that schools would reopen in September.
One year later, I still haven’t set foot in a classroom.
That may sound surprising, especially if Mayor de Blasio has been your go-to source for school reopening news in New York City. If so, you might rightfully assume that all grades across the city are now offering in-person instruction.
You would be wrong, even though the mayor decided to bolster his legacy by pioneering an ambitious school reopening project. The truth is, there hasn’t been all that much pioneering. Or creativity, or clarity, or honesty. Or any robust reopening at all — at least at the high school level.
I go to The Beacon School, a high school of roughly 1500 students in Manhattan. I’ve been enrolled for 18 months; online the last year. That’s because the only “in-person” learning that was offered in the fall was to sit still in a classroom for six hours, your movement restricted, while logged on to the same Zoom classes you could do at home — with no opportunity to socialize.
Understandably, a very small minority of students at my school took advantage of this option. I’m glad it was an option for kids who felt like they really needed it, but it was hardly substantial; the schools closed again in late November.
Yet by Mayor de Blasio’s characterization, Beacon counted as a reopened high school. Based on conversations with friends at other high schools, this was the only “in-person” option many high schools had the ability to offer.
This wasn’t the fault of individual high schools or teachers — they had to operate under certain restrictions that made live classes exceedingly difficult. I’ve watched my teachers gracefully navigate this difficult situation and figure out what we all need without seeing us every day.
I miss being able to take advantage of the socializing that school offered. I miss talking to my teachers. I miss meeting kids from all over the city. I’m tired of staring at a computer screen in my room for the entire day, every weekday, for the better part of a year.
I understand how the dysfunction of the federal government in the early stages of the pandemic crippled states and localities and their ability to respond. But here in New York City, Mayor de Blasio used a bare-bones school reopening as a prop to claim success. He placed optics over securing basic victories for students, like offering genuine in-person instruction.
On the spectrum of how all of this impacted student lives, I consider myself fortunate. I have access to technology, and I’m old enough that my parents don’t need to pay for child care for me. And, unlike current freshmen, I had the ability to meet people in-person during my first six months of high school.
What the mayor should have done is to be honest about what in-person learning looked like at a lot of schools, some of it a result of valid safety concerns on the part of teachers.
He might have outlined solutions he would pursue. What about outdoor learning? Or using city park space? Or retrofitting classrooms to have adequate ventilation?
Instead, back in late October, he announced that students had until November 15 to opt-in or opt-out of in-person classes and that anyone who opted out of in-person classes would have no opportunity to opt back infor the seven-month remainder of the school year.
How could families make these decisions without knowing if teachers would have been vaccinated by then? Or kids? Would March 2021 look different from November 2020?
Based on what we knew about the pandemic last fall, much of the student and faculty population opted out, not unreasonably, for full remote until next fall and possibly beyond.
Mr. Mayor, ensure that all K-12 students who opted for remote learning have the opportunity to return to classrooms before the end of the year, and take ownership of your original, flawed decision to not consider doing so.
About 70 percent of the city’s students chose to stay home and learn remotely; elementary school students who did so are now going to have another chance to come back in person. But the mayor said he isn’t yet sure about the high school kids.
Starting this week, about half the city’s high schools will begin offering so-called hybrid classes again. At my school, and many others, that means exactly what we were offered last fall — no live classes, despite what the mayor may have led you to believe.
It’s not lost on me that families who opted for remote learning at the highest rates were those hit hardest by Covid. Many likely did so out of a distrust in our institutions and their ability to keep kids safe. They did so after watching our public servants fail underserved communities time and time again, including during the Covid pandemic.
I think that the mayor’s strategy should have been similar to that used with the vaccine rollout: Begin the campaign, then chip away at the skepticism. Prove that school reopening can be successful.
Instead, he’s taken credit for reopening schools, while leaving students with the choice of continuing the monotonous cycle of online learning at home or commuting to a highly restricted in-person experience, still on Zoom. He’s only validated the doubts parents had.
The only logical conclusion is that Mayor de Blasio made this decision to reflect well on himself. An artificially lower number of kids returning to classrooms allows for greater distancing, and in theory, more substantive in-person instruction for those that did opt-in.
In the meantime, regardless of his intent, he left three-quarters of a million, largely low-income, students frozen out of opting-in to in-person learning for almost a year, regardless of any shifts in the state of the pandemic. That’s why it’s insulting to see the mayor take credit for reopening high schools and being dishonest about what they really look like under these conditions.
However, there is still time to salvage this year, especially with new CDC guidance that allows for distancing of three feet in schools in areas with mild to substantial community transmission rates. Mayor de Blasio has cited this guidance as a cause for a change in the opt-in policy, but if the past is any indication of the future, I’m not sure things will go according to plan.
Mr. Mayor, ensure that all K-12 students who opted for remote learning have the opportunity to return to classrooms before the end of the year, and take ownership of your original, flawed decision to not consider doing so. Offer several new opt-in periods if it’s necessary. Mobilize resources effectively; come up with ambitious and creative plans like a vaccine delivery system for teachers or organizing outdoor socializing opportunities.
Give us some leadership. Be transparent. It’s obvious you want to be remembered fondly by the history books, but typically history only reflects well on leaders who show some capacity for assuming responsibility in the face of adversity.
Hank Drucker is a sophomore at The Beacon School in Manhattan. He spent all of his sophomore year learning on Zoom from his bedroom and reading Robert Caro’s biographies.
This story about pandemic education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.