coronavirus · Educational Equity · New York City · online learning · remote learning

Holding Out For a Hero: How You Can Help Heal NYC (School Edition)

War metaphors have been flying hot and heavy these past few months, as politicians, statesmen, and journalists search for ways to characterize our fight against COVID-19. 

They leave ordinary people wondering how we can do our part. What’s COVID-19’s version of Rosie the Riveter, air-raid wardens, victory gardens, collecting scrap metal, rolling bandages, or driving an ambulance through a minefield, ala Hemingway? We want to be heroes. We’re just not sure how, against this enemy.

Two things regularly happen in wartime: Triage and personal sacrifice.

Triage is a medical term describing the sorting and allocation of treatment to patients and especially battle and disaster victims according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors.

Personal sacrifice is when those who can give up what they have to those who need it more.

How does this apply to COVID-19 and NYC schools?

Here’s how it applies to COVID-19 and NYC schools:

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio fought over who had the authority to close NYC schools. NY Governor Cuomo and NYC Mayor De Blasio are now fighting over who has the authority to reopen NYC schools.

Just like the beaches, it’s entirely possible that Cuomo may authorize the reopening of schools in NY state, while De Blasio orders them to stay closed in NYC.

NYC families for whom remote learning isn’t working, either due to lack of internet, adults unable to supervise, or children’s resistance, are pushing for a return to normalcy come September. (Some are even pushing for schools to reopen earlier, citing learning loss from March through June, or lack of childcare once parents are allowed to return to work.)

NYC teachers, on the other hand, are refusing to return unless multiple safety precautions are first met. 

The suggestion that all learning continue remotely into 2021 was met with aggressive pushback. Examples of social distancing, regular hand-washing, and temperature checks from other countries led to cries of, “American kids could never have the self-discipline to do that!” (What’s that they say about lowered expectations and children delivering what you expect of them?)

As a result, tough decisions will need to be made before September 2020.

This is where triage and personal sacrifice come in.

Triage: Some children and families need in-person learning more than others. Children whose homes don’t have internet or a quiet space to study. Children of essential workers and those who, financially, have no choice but to return to their jobs. Younger children for whom sitting in front of a screen for hours is brutal and who don’t yet have the cognitive skills to manage their time. Children whose parents might not speak English and can’t help with schoolwork. Children with special needs.

Personal sacrifice: Those who have the means to continue remote learning can voluntarily forfeit their in-person school seats to those who don’t.

High schoolers with access to the internet and the maturity to work on their own should continue learning remotely (from teachers who are older or medically compromised and thus more at risk from returning to in-person instruction). This will leave more socially-distanced room in the classroom for students who require face-to-face instruction in order to catch up on the learning they’ve missed. (Up to a year of lost time.)

A proportion of high schoolers opting to stay home will leave more classrooms free for not only their peers but also younger children’s in-person instruction. Some now shrunken high-schools could be co-located so that entire buildings could be repurposed for K-8. (Yes, we know, high school buildings are not physically set up for elementary or middle school children. Can we be flexible? It’s war time.)

On the other hand, those parents who either can stay home and supervise their younger child’s learning, or those who can afford to hire someone to watch and work with them, could also opt to continue remote instruction in the interest of freeing up socially-distanced spaces for those who don’t have that option. They would be protecting the health of other children, their families, and their teachers.

“Impossible,” some parents cry. “Children need socialization, that’s all there is to it. I will not subject my child to remote learning. It’s too emotionally devastating. Somebody better figure out how to fix this, and fast. Any compromise less than a full return to normalcy is unacceptable.”

This is where the personal sacrifice comes in. It isn’t a sacrifice if there is nothing to give up.

Yes, all children need socialization. But some can only get it at school. While others have the means and resources to take them to (small group, socially distanced) afterschool activities, and the time to cart them to playdates. (Or, at least, the money to hire somebody else to do it.)

If the choice comes down to either all children continue learning remotely or, if enough volunteer to keep doing it, that means some others will be able to return to the classroom, which will you opt for?

I’m usually the first one to rage against the notion of education being a zero sum game.

In 2018, I wrote: Raising the bar for one child does not mean lowering it (or taking it away from) another. More schools (dare we dream, all?) reporting their kids performing at or above grade level is something that can happen without someone having to “give up their seat at the table.”

I was referencing my review of a play entitled Admissions, where one character asserts: “You’re happy to make the world a better place as long as it doesn’t cost you anything…. If people could make the world a better place without giving up anything, it would have happened by now!…. If there are going to be new voices at the table, someone has to stand up and offer a seat.”

I disagreed with him then.

But that was 2018.

This is 2020.

And while a good education isn’t a finite resource, physical spots in physical schools, are.

Some children need them more than others.

In the name of triage, will anyone make the personal sacrifice to give up theirs for the greater good?

It is wartime, after all.

It’s time to be heroes.

What do you think?

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