on the cover

On the Cover of New York Magazine: Back to School?

Photo: Bobby Doherty

For the cover of New York’s August 3–16, 2020 issue, writer Keith Gessen attempts to answer the question on a lot of parents’ minds as September looms: What will the first day of school look like? Though New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has announced schools will reopen in the fall, the battle has been messy and bungled, leaving many of the people charged with preparing for it concerned and angry. “Teachers feel they are being asked to jeopardize their very lives to provide an inferior educational experience so that other adults can go off to work,” writes Gessen. “School administrators and staff feel they are being asked to plan the impossible with too little time and too little money. Working parents, especially mothers, find themselves shunted back into the home, sitting alongside their children for hours as they Zoom in to their classes. And looming over all the confusion and divisiveness is a touchy, querulous, voluble mayor who cannot seem to make up his mind.”

Shot by former New York Magazine staff photographer Bobby Doherty, the cover image contrasts childhood with the very adult problem American children are facing. “The idea was to make the point that there’s really no great option for kids to go to school right now,” says New York’s photography director Jody Quon. “In order to push that point, we thought it would be great to really layer the cover model with every possible layer of protection — an adult hazmat suit, gloves, a face mask, a face shield — while still keeping him a child.”

Prior to reporting this story, Gessen, who is himself a parent, says he was spending all his time trying to read the tea leaves about whether school would open in the fall. “Now that I know more about how this plan came together, and what schools are doing to implement it, I do not feel better. But at least I know!” To Gessen, the most surprising revelation in reporting this story was just how angry teachers are. “I think we all kind of know that teachers are underpaid and underappreciated, that they need to buy their own crayons, but it’s one thing to know that abstractly and a very different thing to talk to people concretely going through it, especially now,” he says. “Teachers feel like they always have to be the bridge between what their kids need and what society is willing to finance or support. And society (meaning us) takes advantage of their love for our children by asking them to do more and more. In this case though, it may be a bridge too far.”

On the Cover of New York Magazine: Back to School?