“IT WAS LAYER upon layer of dysfunction, and my school is dysfunctional on a good day,” says a teacher in New York City. On September 8th she and her colleagues returned to work, almost six months after schools were closed as the pandemic tightened its grip; it would claim the lives of 25,000 New Yorkers. The city’s Department of Education (DoE) had chopped and changed over when they should return. To add to their worries, that day one of them tested positive for covid-19. Then they suspected that the school was not thoroughly cleaned (the DoE says it was).
And that was before the children turned up. This week pupils in America’s biggest school district, responsible for educating 1.1m children, are at last due back, starting with elementary schools on September 29th. Middle and high schools open two days later. (Children with special needs returned on September 21st.) Bill de Blasio, the mayor, has twice postponed the restart from its original date of September 10th—the second time, with just three days’ notice—after the teachers’ union threatened legal action and a strike, and teachers and some parents protested outside schools. In recent weeks several DoE officials have resigned, including the person overseeing the reopening.
The reopening is an important step back towards normality for the city. But about 100 schools and early-learning centres for under-fives, out of 2,500, have at least one case of covid-19; those infected include 65 teachers. Schools with two or more cases will shut temporarily, to allow for testing and tracing, and will stay closed for 14 days if the source cannot be found. If the city’s infection rate rises above 3% the whole system will move to remote learning.
All the same, in New York, as much as anywhere, getting children back into school is vitally important. Although the pandemic has taken its toll chiefly among the old, it has also been an educational blight for the young. Lost learning worsens employment and earnings prospects in adulthood.
School is also the only place where many children get a square meal. Three-quarters of the district’s children “experience poverty”, says the city council. Most are entitled to free or subsidised breakfast and lunch at school. A teacher in a Queens middle school told The Economist in March: “If my school is closed, my kids don’t eat.” (A federal government programme, Pandemic EBT, has been replacing the value of lost school meals with extra food stamps.) On top of all this, about 114,000 children are homeless. School may be their only safe place.
School closures have also squeezed parents who can ill-afford not to work but have children to care for. As the pandemic took hold, the main union representing health-care workers warned that hospitals could face a manpower crisis if its members had to stay at home to look after children.
No wonder Mr de Blasio and Richard Carranza, the official who heads the city’s DoE, were reluctant to close schools in March and have been eager to open them again, despite unions’ complaints that the reopening was poorly planned. Other big school districts, including Chicago and Los Angeles, announced over the summer that their schools would reopen later than usual to allow time to prepare; children would be taught remotely for a few months. New York City, however, has offered parents a choice of remote or “blended” learning (ie, partly in school). The families of about 46% of pupils have chosen remote learning alone, including almost all those at Stuyvesant, the city’s most competitive high school.
However, this hybrid model requires more teachers. Mr de Blasio told New Yorkers that blended-learning students would have separate remote and classroom teachers, and children taught solely remotely would have their own. Teaching in person is different from teaching online, explains Audrey Elias, an elementary-school teacher in Brooklyn, and requires a different sort of planning. “You can’t walk into a room and wing teaching on Zoom.” But the city does not have enough teachers to go around. The Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan research body, estimates the district needs 11,900 extra teachers, in addition to the roughly 75,000 it already has. It has hired only 2,500 so far.
Ms Elias says that in her school the blended-learning children are divided into two groups, who each come to school two days a week and learn remotely on the other three.She admits she “freaked out” when she learned that she would be responsible for teaching both the children in front of her and those at home (though not at the same time).
Essential workers, who have to work, and poorer ones, are mostly opting for blended learning. They cannot afford to stay at home. Even though the city distributed 900,000 internet-enabled devices to needy children, some say they still lack them—or an internet connection. Those that do often must share devices and space with siblings or parents in cramped, noisy homes. Teachers report that some children are not logging in. And child care is in short supply. The city plans to offer 100,000 child-care spots to working families for remote-learning days in libraries and community centres by the end of the year, but has just 30,000 so far.
Managing the return to school in such a huge, diverse city is bound to be difficult. Raymond Niemiec of the Manhattan Institute, a New York think-tank, said the places that have pulled it off best have tended to be smaller districts, charter schools (which are publicly subsidised but independently run) or private Catholic schools. Examples include Success Academy, a charter-school network in New York City with 20,000 pupils, which is teaching entirely remotely for the rest of the year, and the archdiocese of New York, which is providing both in-person learning and a blend in many of its schools.
The problems that come with scale and social deprivation have been compounded by teachers’ lack of trust in the DoE. The principals are fed up, too. On September 27th the principals’ union declared that it had lost confidence in the mayor. It called on Mr de Blasio to cede control of the school system to New York state for the duration of the public-health crisis.
Besides hiring more staff, the city could have used its resources better. For instance, Jumaane Williams, the public advocate (the city’s second-highest office), suggested moving most high-schoolers to remote learning. This might have made space in dozens of buildings for younger children and vulnerable high-school pupils. Tajh Sutton, a mother of two, sits on a Community Education Council, a parent-led advisory group, in Brooklyn. She says she spent the summer trying to persuade the mayor and the teachers’ union that reopening schools means putting the most vulnerable students first. But, she says, they were unwilling to engage with her.
Parents will hope above all that schools can stay open, so that their children can learn and they can work. When the city was dithering about closing schools in March, Mr Carranza said: “We’re flying the plane as we’re building the plane.” To many of the parents and teachers on board, it still feels that way.