This month, a million students in New York City were supposed to go back to school. The largest school system in the nation was prepared to defy the virus and appropriately prioritize education over indoor dining, drinking, and dancing.
All that is now in serious doubt. Faced with the very real possibility of a strike — the United Federation of Teachers instructed their members not to prepare for classes that were supposed to start Sept. 10 — the De Blasio administration blinked. School will be delayed for at least 10 days to allow the city more time to prepare for a safe opening.
Time, of course, is the one thing the administration has had plenty of already, and largely squandered. The steps the city needed to take to prepare for a proper opening are easy to list, because they are the kinds of steps that school systems around the world have been taking to prepare for their openings, and the kinds of steps that restaurants and hair salons and offices have been taking in New York to be ready for employees and customers to get back to work. Teachers need adequate personal protective equipment. Spaces need to be de-densified, with smaller classes that are spaced out better. Ventilation needs to be assessed and, where necessary, upgraded, and outdoor space utilized to the greatest degree possible. Students and teachers alike need to be comprehensively tested before returning to the classroom, and tested regularly thereafter to nip any potential outbreak in the bud, which requires dedicated lab capacity to be done in a timely fashion. None of that was undertaken with the urgency and care necessary to be ready for reopening on schedule.
Of course, none of these steps would guarantee that opening the country's largest school system would go without a hitch. True, New York had some factors going for it that other American school systems do not. Partly because it was hit so hard by COVID in the spring, New York today has quite a low rate of infection (three per 100,000 as of this writing), and likely has a high rate of immunity to the virus. But that infection rate is still twice the infection rate in Germany, the most successful large country in Europe at combating the virus, which has still struggled to make its schools COVID-free zones.
Nonetheless, Germany, like many other countries, understood that if they truly prioritized reopening — as I agree they should have — that meant prioritizing the steps that would make reopening possible. While taking the necessary steps is expensive, an administration that did the proper planning would be in a much better position to go begging in Albany or Washington for greater fiscal support than an administration that didn't even start planning to use outdoor space for classes until late in the summer. And while teachers were always going to be nervous, it's not like the city had to confirm their worst fears with outrageous shenanigans like asking teachers to certify the adequacy of ventilation systems (hardly their area of expertise), and then seeming to bureaucratically bury any notices of problems. It's hard to ask teachers to step up and take risks when the government has done so little to bolster their confidence.
So I sympathize with the union's position. But I worry deeply about the consequences for the future of public education if so many of America's students are not in school this fall.
The importance of opening schools for child health and development really cannot be understated, something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have emphasized. Add to that the fact that so many students in New York and other cities depend on the schools for adequate meals, that so many lack the technological infrastructure to facilitate distance learning, and that so many parents depend on school to take their kids so they can do their jobs, and it's clear that the failure to open schools presages a social catastrophe, particularly for the poor and middle class. In that sense, teachers are as surely essential workers as workers in health care, agriculture, transportation, construction, and other sectors who did their jobs and suffered disproportionately during the worst days of the spring.
Parents know this, even the many who are worried enough about the safety of the public schools to favor delays. But some families are better placed to insulate themselves from the possibility that the public schools will fail — and many have already taken the necessary steps. Parents with the time, financial resources, and educational capital are forming learning pods, shifting to home-schooling, enrolling children in private schools that promise in-person instruction — whatever they need to do to provide a robust education for their children. The failure of the public schools to get their act together is driving even very liberal parents around the bend. Where will they ultimately land?
I worry that they'll land in a place vastly less-supportive of public education. Trust betrayed takes work and time to regain; many administrations may not be prepared to do the work, and few may have the time. Parents who have settled on alternatives may be wary of going back in even after the virus has receded — particularly when the schools are laboring under the austerity budgets likely to predominate in the post-pandemic economy. And if they are unwilling to trust the schools with their children, are they likely to trust the system with their dollars? Guilt only goes so far; even liberal parents may decide that rather than prop up a system that failed them, they'd rather put their money behind efforts to get more needy students out.
Of course, that's exactly what advocates of school choice and privatization have long sought. But a collapse in support for public education would be the absolute worst way to get there, even from the perspective of those who agree on the destination. It would be an obvious disaster for the teachers unions who have resisted reopening, and would presage a dramatic drop in negotiating power for the teachers themselves. Under the best circumstances, school vouchers, particularly universal ones, risk further deepening educational inequalities and consequent social and economic inequalities; in the context of a collapse of the public school systems, such an outcome would be essentially guaranteed. And it would gut the historic function of public schools as inculcators of a common culture and as incubators for civic equality, which remain crucial to a healthy democracy, however atrophied those functions are in many schools today.
If they are aware of that possible catastrophe, the left, including the teachers' unions, needs to take a hard look at the way they are talking about school reopening. If the emphasis on safety looks like special pleading for a class of workers determined to be maximally risk-averse, I fear it will backfire horribly. I already hear friends and neighbors talking about how the teachers' union is sacrificing Black kids to protect white teachers — and pointing out the inaccuracy of that picture (there are plenty of non-white teachers, and plenty of non-white parents who are worried about COVID in schools) will not suffice to rebut that impression. The message needs to be that they want the schools to open, in person, and that if they can't be opened yet because of safety that is a massive failure of public trust. Officials who have not done the job to make that possible need to be replaced with people who will do it, belatedly but determinedly — because public education is essential.
As with so many COVID-related challenges, America's schools face a real crossroads. Faced with huge unexpected costs and logistical challenges, real leadership could have mobilized public support to provide the necessary resources that could underwrite renewed long-term support for the public schools. Failures of leadership could deliver the opposite result: a public less willing to throw good money into a system that failed them. The ones who will be failed the most in that case are the students who most need effective public schools.