Like most cities right now, New York is crammed with empty space. Behold the skyline of midtown Manhattan, a trillion dollars’ worth of real estate lying almost entirely fallow. Although Phase Two of the state’s reopening schedule, which went into effect on June 22, allowed companies to start repopulating their offices, most are holding off, so tumbleweeds still roll across trading floors and skyscrapers stand mute while workers try to keep their employers satisfied, their children quiescent, and their own brains from exploding, all in the confines of our city’s famously ungenerous apartments. As New Yorkers convert closets into conference rooms and use toilets as executive chairs because the kids have monopolized the living room, the prospect of another year of virtual school fills parents with horror.
At the moment, official policy on reopening schools is one of abject confusion. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said kids will return to classrooms in September because the city has conducted a survey and that’s what parents want. The teachers’ union says not so fast, and Governor Andrew Cuomo says, as usual, that the decision falls to him, not the mayor. The reopening of schools has three components: when, how, and where. The when should take precedence, and the answer should be, if at all possible, at the start of the academic year. The how involves a long list of cautions and procedures, many of which require a creative answer to where. A new report by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health dispenses an array of recommendations — including widely spaced desks, touchless faucets, and upgraded filters in air-conditioning systems — that, for all their well-researched wisdom, are hard to put into practice in already overburdened and frequently shabby public schools, many of which don’t have air-conditioning at all. “We’ve underinvested in school infrastructure for decades, and we’re paying the price,” says Joseph Allen, one of the study’s co-authors, who also wrote Healthy Buildings. “Now we need to treat schools the way we treated hospitals in March: We surged.”
When the medical system needed more space last spring, the spirit of improvisation kicked in, and field hospitals sprang up in Central Park and the Javits Center. Schools have less specialized requirements, but they do need square footage. So far, the Department of Education has been sweating over how to fit more than a million children into its 1,866 buildings and still leave sufficient room between desks. One way is to lengthen the school day and use each building in shifts. Another is to have students toggle between in-class time and Zoom purgatory, which promises to add confusion to misery.
A third would be to expand the school system’s footprint into every available corner of unused urban space. Erect unused party tents in the parking lot at Citi Field. Put up the Frieze Art Fair tent on Randalls Island. Recycle the plywood that covered storefronts into classroom partitions on the floor of the Javits Center and Piers 92 and 94. Divide the Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory into learning bubbles. Repurpose gyms. Make the shuttered Shops at Hudson Yards earn their subsidies. Spread kids through David Geffen Hall and Radio City Music Hall and scatter them around the stands at the Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden. Commandeer the city’s abundance of darkened theaters and already perfect black-box spaces. Venues that can’t welcome performers or audiences until a vaccine arrives could serve as temporary schools, safely accommodating, say, 200 students in a space with 1,000 seats. And if the city and state paid even nominal rent, that would pump some money into venues that are withering a little further with every idle day.
Should all that real estate still not be enough, let’s resort to creative busing. The New York Giants and the Jets already make their home in New Jersey; surely, the never-opened American Dream Mall next door at the Meadowlands can live up to its name and make its echoing acres available to educate the next generation, at least for a few months.
Such a massive dispersal of the education system would come with a massive set of questions. How would teachers be assigned? Whose insurance would cover which accidents? Who would pay the costs of keeping the lights on? How can so many different spaces be kept clean? Who would set and enforce rules? These are not incidental concerns, but they’re bureaucratic, not physical obstacles. People, time, and money are a lot easier to redistribute than real estate.
This takeover seems necessary and fair. As we emerge from lockdown, the city has turned over sidewalks and parking lanes to restaurants for outdoor dining. That move prompted the writer Nicole Murray to complain that public streets had turned into “transactional spaces” that “exist in order to attract the ‘right’ kinds of people … constricting the movement of those deemed undesirable and prioritizing orderliness to serve their intended purpose: making the owners money.” I don’t see the problem with dislodging private cars to make way for restaurant seating, but if you grant Murray’s objection, one way to right the balance is to ask the private sector to lend the public some of its vacant turf in return.
We have an urgent need to get kids safely back together with teachers and one another (and out of their parents’ hair). Students who have already lost a few months of their learning lives to the vagaries of online teaching should not be asked to sacrifice any more than is unavoidable — and the bar for unavoidability should be high. Let’s declare an educational emergency and recognize that returning to physical classrooms by the start of the academic year is one of society’s most urgent priorities, even if that means enlarging our concept of what a school building is. Every other decision should flow from that.