intelligencer chats

Should New York City Really Be Reopening Its Schools?

A public school on the Upper East Side. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The moment of truth is nearing for New York City public schools. Can the massive system pull off the massive bureaucratic challenge of reopening amid COVID-19 — and does it even make sense to try? I spoke with New York contributing editor Lisa Miller to gauge the city’s approach.

Ben: When we last spoke back in July, you said there were way too many unknowns regarding New York City’s then-nascent plan to reopen public schools in the fall. Now, after weeks of wrangling, the city and the teachers unions have come to an agreement: School will start in person, optionally, on September 21 — ten days later than was originally planned, with pretty strict testing protocols in place. The fact that in-person learning is happening at all is extraordinary; New York is the only major public school district to go this route. Do you think the city is sufficiently prepared to pull this off?

Lisa: I have no idea how prepared the city actually is. It’s impossible to tell. What we do know is that too many city schools were overcrowded and poorly ventilated before March 16. We know that the city’s testing capacity has been patchy at best. (I got test results back in two days from an urgent care; a friend never got his test results back.) But the deal reached yesterday between the United Federation of Teachers and the mayor is better than what was there before, and more reassuring (I think) to teachers, principals, and parents.

Ben: What do you find reassuring about it in particular?

Lisa: Well, I think the low infection rate in the city is very reassuring. It is less than one percent and has been for many weeks now. This has been maintained despite massive protests, gatherings in outdoor restaurants, and operational (outdoor) summer camps. So that’s one thing.

The improvements on the treatment side — steroids, the promise of a vaccine, the vacancies in hospitals — also reassure me. Remember, back in March, when we were afraid our loved ones were going to die on the sidewalk because the lines for the ERs were so long?

For me, the real crux of it is testing. In an ideal world, there is a quick test. Every child, teacher, and administrator takes it each morning before school and checks in on an app. If positive, that person stays home. This would solve so much of the anxiety about asymptomatic carriers, and it’s completely doable.

The testing protocols established by the new agreement are less perfect than that. The agreement mandates randomized testing of 10 to 20 percent of a given school’s population once a month. This works if the infection rate remains very low. But it also practically guarantees a bumpy start — closing, opening, closing, opening — because a month between tests is too long an interval to really provide actionable information.

Also, local schools and citywide schools represent two different epidemiological experiments. A local school probably reflects the infection rate of the neighborhood: It’s easy to identify clusters of infection and close stuff down. But a citywide school, which draws kids from all five boroughs who likely are traveling by subway, is a different story — kids and teachers coming together and then going back to their families every day. (Or twice a week or whatever.) If infection rates rise, then we will need not only good, widespread testing but also really efficient contact tracing so that cases aren’t spreading undetected. Again, this is totally doable. Other countries are doing it, and it’s shameful that we can’t or aren’t. Still, my belief is that the infection rate right now is low enough to try to open, in order to give our kids a sense of optimism and a glimpse of a possible future. And to instill trust that we know how to be responsible to ourselves and to our communities and even to strangers. The trust part is the hardest thing in this political environment.

Ben: It sounds like you’re basically comfortable with sending your daughter back to school. Is your couched optimism shared by most parents you’re talking to?

Lisa: Look, I said this to my daughter early on. There’s real risk and there’s perception of risk, and each family grapples with these two variables differently. I think — and the past five months have shown this — that in New York City we have learned how to be careful and how to be safe. Wear masks, stay six feet apart, wash hands. We know how to do this. I believe it’s possible to ask a population to behave responsibly and (mostly) trust that they will. And we will close down and regroup if we fail. What I wish more than anything was that we had widespread, quick, reliable testing to back up that ask. It is insane to me that we don’t have that.

Most of the people I know are going “remote only” for now, although not universally. People with young kids are sending them to preschool. People whose kids have learning differences are sending them to school. And I know a bunch of people who are opting for the hybrid model because they want their kids to have structure and peers, and they are comfortable with the risk — both for their own families and for the others in the school.

Ben: Based on what you’ve heard, how do you feel about this combo platter approach, where some kids will be there all the time, some half the time, and some never? From an educational perspective, it sounds enormously challenging.

Lisa: I think about my kid’s principal every single day, and I send her all the good juju I can summon. She is an incredible, even-handed administrator who really loves and gets kids. She also has two young kids of her own, who wander through the frame on Zoom calls. I can’t imagine how she’s juggling all this — some kids in class some of the time, some kids never in class, a huge portion of teachers asking not to be in school, the new wrinkle thrown in by the Department of Education that remote-only teachers can’t also be classroom teachers, a hiring freeze so she can’t add staff to ameliorate the difficulties and gaps, and some families saying they’re going to be in school and then deciding at the last minute not to be in school. Last night, before I went to sleep, I had the crazy thought that I would write to her and offer to teach some classes. I mean, it’s nuts. But I could teach writing to high schoolers, right?

Ben: There’s no question you could. They’d be lucky to have you!

Lisa: Someone said something really smart to me recently that I’m thinking a lot about. Everyone is so focused on “getting back to school.” But after this gap, “back to school” isn’t going to be the same for a while — maybe ever. It’s not going to be 30 kids in a classroom with a teacher for a while. But we can’t throw away school either, and not just because it gives kids somewhere to go during the day (though that isn’t a small thing), but because we need to have an educated population. Kids who know about civics and science and history, who can think critically about a piece of writing or a political speech, who can express themselves and their own idiosyncratic ideas in writing, in video, in film, who can read a health-insurance bill and know if they’re being ripped off. We can’t abandon the effort to produce thinking, compassionate, skeptical, empathic humans. So how are we going to do that?

Ben: Perhaps a more expansive vision of what education means could come out of this tangled situation — though maybe that is overly optimistic.

Lisa: Well, it’s another one of this moment’s appalling inequities, right? In our family, we are going to be able to think expansively about our daughter’s education, add on where we have to, be imaginative and inventive. But people who are super-stressed about losing their jobs or paying their bills or putting food on the table are not going to have that kind of bandwidth. What we know about stress is that it interferes with our decision-making abilities and judgment. Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone always says, “They’re all our kids.” We have to start thinking about them that way.

Should New York City Really Be Reopening Its Schools?