This week's Ask A Native New Yorker question comes from a New Yorker who, like many others, is agonizing about sending their kids back to school.


Dear Jake,

Are you sending your kids back to school in September? The Spring distance learning was kind of a nightmare for us: my husband and I are in a small two-bedroom apartment in Prospect Heights with a first and fourth grader, and between trying to do our jobs and get the kids signed on at the right times, everyone was totally stressed out and miserable. Some of the teachers at our school are telling us everyone should sign up for the distance-learning option again, because they say the school isn't prepared to reopen and doing so would endanger both the staff and the students, and obviously we don't want to get anyone sick or get sick ourselves. But the idea of doing another three or six months of this fills me with an acute sense of panic and despair. What should we do?

Please advise,

Parents in Purgatory


Dear PiP,

I literally have no idea — we're in the exact same situation, and change our minds every three hours as new information comes in. Up until this week it seemed like one of our kids would be going back at least a couple of days a week, but then the teachers union said they felt it was unsafe without full testing of all students and staff, and that doesn't seem like it's going to happen, so now we're leaning back in the other direction towards full distance learning for the first quarter.

That is far from ideal. My wife is a pre-school teacher and her school is planning on reopening, so unlike earlier in the year when she was doing distance teaching, she won't be around to help get our kids online. My job as a local blogger, advice columnist, and non-profit journalist is quite hectic during this time of high-velocity news, and the prospect of trying to get it done while simultaneously operating a distance-learning school seems impossible, futile, and ridiculous. But, like you, we don't want to risk the health of our family or anyone who works at the school, so it's a no-win situation.

When faced with a choice that's really no choice at all, I tend towards procrastination, and I advise you to do the same. Maybe the decision will be made for you, when it turns out the schools don't open at all. Generally, if you want professionals to do a dangerous job, you have to pay them more money to do it, or provide the resources to reduce the danger to the point where they'll do it without being paid more. In this situation, the city and state governments have chosen to do neither, and simply asked that the teachers show up for the same pay in a vastly more threatening situation. My bet is that when push comes to shove, the teachers simply won't do it. Even if they don't strike, a sick-out would be equally effective in preventing this re-opening, or at least delaying it by a month or two.

Is it morally right for them to refuse to come in? Think about it — what would you do in a similar situation? Obviously, if you needed the money, and you had no other choice, you'd go in, but that's not the case here. In the hospitals, the doctors and nurses did go in, but of course in that case there was no other option — you can't provide most healthcare remotely — and they asked for hazard pay, and often received it. They also asked for protective equipment, and as a society we spent an enormous amount of money to provide it, as well as to open emergency hospitals to reduce the workload and risk. We're doing none of that for the teachers — they're not even getting overtime pay, like the NYPD — if you were in their shoes, would you accept this situation?

Yes, the risk has decreased, compared to April, but it is not zero. Looking at our stats page, there have been around 300 positive cases in NYC per day this week, and we know we're not catching every case. It seems highly likely that if we reopen a school system with more than a million kids, dozens of them will go to school positive, and we will quickly see outbreaks. Look at what happened at the colleges — UNC, Notre Dame, or in the prisons or nursing homes. Any setting where you bring lots of people together, particularly indoors, leads to an outbreak. In fact, earlier this week Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia, told WNYC's Brian Lehrer that "schools are going to become hotbeds for the infections," and the further spread of COVID-19 is "almost inevitable if we are in fact going to even hold some classes in real time in real classrooms."

Given the state of our testing system, with its week-long delays, some of those outbreaks will be quite widespread before we catch them. With 1700 schools in New York, those outbreaks will probably only occur at a small percentage of schools, but we won't know which ones until after people start getting sick. If you were a teacher, would you want to take the risk that it might be your school? As a parent, is it right to send our kid in, knowing it will require the teachers to take that risk, if we have any other option?

Probably not. So it's really a question of whether you have another option, and what situation rises to a level of requiring you to send your kid in. First, I don't think it's simply "my kid is not getting a good education over Zoom." That's true for all kids — and holding the schools or your kid to the standards of a normal year is just going to lead to unhappiness. It's easy to lose sight of, but we're in a (god-willing) once in a generation shitstorm, and the correct standard here is not "great education"— it's simply survival and getting the kids through. Lower the bar, everyone will have to catch up next year. Now some families can't even reach that standard, they don't have internet connections, or housing, or a parent who can work from home, or enough food, and those are the families we've really got to focus our resources on.

Imagine if everyone else just bit the bullet and kept their kids at home, gritting our teeth, and got through it the best we could. That would free up a lot of bandwidth for the system to really target the families in need for socially-distant, five-day-a-week, in-person education. It might look like an expansion of the Regional Enrichment Centers, opening one at each school, where kids who really can't go anywhere else could go- either to do distance-learning on a computer with the rest of their class, or to be part of an in-person class with a real teacher. Ideally, with most of that learning taking place outdoors, under a tent or in a park. Given the space constraints, and the enormous budget shortfalls, the only way that's going to happen is if those of us lucky enough not to really, absolutely, positively need it, are willing to keep our kids home.

We should've never reached this point. In a functioning democracy we would've either caught this virus before it entered the country, or responded with a fast and total shutdown once we detected it here. Instead, our shambolic federal government totally abdicated its role, and by the time our somewhat more functional state and local governments got their acts together in April, it was already too late. Remember that week the mayor decided to keep schools open, even when it was already absolutely clear we were in an apocalyptic situation? Or how the governor insisted things were under control, even as we all heard the sirens? These are still the guys in charge, insisting that things will be fine, that we're past the peak and we're not like all those other places who reopened schools and saw immediate spikes. If they were so wrong then, why should we believe them now?

I'm not going to judge you if, after thinking about all of this, you send your kids back — it's an impossible situation and you've got to do whatever you can to survive with your sanity and health intact. Maybe we'll get lucky and there won't be a second wave. No matter what you do, I give you credit for staying here in the city when some who were privileged enough to have the choice ran for the hills, or the suburbs, or their beach houses or wherever their cowardice and/or lack-of-commitment to NYC took them.

I salute you and wish you and your family health and happiness.

In solidarity,

Jake

NB. Having more information might help you make this decision. If, for instance, your whole family was positive for antibodies, you might feel that your risk is reduced (though we don't know exactly how much protection it provides, or for how long, or whether you'd still be able to pass COVID to someone else at the school.) Or you could look up your neighborhood in the city's new recent testing and antibody maps, which could tell you if your neighborhood is at higher risk. Sunset Park, for instance, has a positivity rate of more than 3%, while Prospect Heights is at 0.59%.