‘The truth is, New York State has not met its constitutional responsibilities, laughing off multiple court orders and duly-passed laws mandating minimums for neglected, underfunded schools. And it has never mattered more, but instead of standing together, parents and teachers are finger-pointing in classic “scarcity mindset.”’

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

A scene from the first day of school in September at Manhattan’s P.S. 188.

The ongoing pandemic has been tough on everyone, and with New York City schools closing down again last month, we see why the city’s reopening plan has been both tenuous and fraught. As a New York City teacher, I was surprised to see criticism of the city’s hybrid learning program that laid blame on teachers. There were valid points made about remote school being awful, and schools not having enough resources for both virtual and in-person learning, but when I saw parents demanding teachers “go back to full-time school or quit,” I had to respond. 

First off, I personally believe that opportunities for in-person school should go first to Pre-K, elementary and high-need students, and I agree that infection rates, whether low or high, should inform policy. But as this fall saw the first death of a New York school staffer with COVID-19 since schools reopened this school year, we also need to be honest about the tradeoffs. As infection rates rise again across the city, state and country, school districts large and small are reacting in vastly different ways, with some communities facing far fewer options than others.

Next, teachers are indeed walking away: Newsweek reports retirements across the state are up 20 percent over 2019, which left schools even more understaffed. Nationally, surveys show about 28 percent considering leaving the classroom, a rate that doubles for older teachers. Concerned teachers did call for all-remote learning, along with resources to make it work better. But we also fought for safety improvements like universal testing and tracing, working sinks and adequate ventilation. If the union would have held out, who knows, New York might have a millionaire’s tax by now, but the official UFT position was always to open schools safely. After the negotiations concluded, we went back to work as required, in person.

Then what happened? Cases did appear, hundreds of schools closed in the city’s COVID-19 “hotspot” neighborhoods and the number of parents opting out of in-person learning shot up steadily, while in-person attendance dropped precipitously to about 25 percent. In my school, in-person attendance fell through the floor as soon as the “hot zones” were announced, with about 85 percent of hybrid students staying home while remote attendance held steady.

Why? In-person school is not all it was imagined to be, socially-distanced with no paper, pencils, books, glue, scissors, etc. Kids especially hate masks and school is dreary without arts, gym, recess or normal interaction. But I appreciate the honesty of parents who admit it’s more about them going back to work. I don’t think either mode is normal or ideal for kids, and in any case, in-person students in grades 6-12 are really just on laptops with the remote kids anyway. 

Last month, as infection rates hit worst-ever records across the states, the city was beset by sharply rising case counts and ordered schools closed as the citywide average for positive tests hit 3 percent. Many parents quickly took to the streets and social media, some faulting the teachers union, even though this relatively conservative metric is and was always the mayor’s idea. Now, that metric is gone as the mayor plans to reopen buildings for elementary and District 75 students starting next week, with new weekly testing protocols and a permanent transition from hybrid to full-time for in-person students.

Next up is the colder weather. In thousands of New York City classrooms like mine, the only ventilation is open windows and doors (one week, we had construction noise that made speaking futile). But how will we manage when it’s freezing outside and the heat isn’t keeping up, or the wind and rain is whipping in? 

Only now do we truly realize that suburban schools and newer city school buildings have mechanical ventilation, with cleaner, filtered air, while our kids go without. The immediacy of the pandemic has brought renewed attention to the city’s forgotten dirty secret — that Black and Brown communities have long been dumping grounds for polluted air and water.

The truth is, New York State has not met its constitutional responsibilities, laughing off multiple court orders and duly-passed laws mandating minimums for neglected, underfunded schools. And it has never mattered more, but instead of standing together, parents and teachers are finger-pointing in classic “scarcity mindset.”

While schools in more privileged areas supply students with laptops and brand new tablets with Otterbox cases and detachable keyboards, some city schools struggle for the basics, facing six to eight week backorders for devices and connection problems that can make learning grind to a halt. My school building had two all-day internet outages so far, and WiFi service at home has been Swiss cheese since remote learning began, particularly for homes with multiple siblings online. All day long we see students abruptly disappear from online class, and this provides the perfect cover for kids skipping class. But imagine the distress of a teacher getting dropped from a Zoom call, leaving 30 seventh graders unattended. Then too, what about families that simply can’t afford a WiFi plan? I have already had students miss one or two weeks at a time.

This is not to be negative at every turn, this is about recognizing what’s working and asking why it’s not happening here. Obviously the president has been our greatest problem, but Governor Andrew Cuomo is also hurting schools by blocking long-owed funding and planning to turn over education to tech billionaires. 

Recently, on a Zoom call with the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of very wealthy activists seeking to raise taxes on the rich, I asked about New York. Director Morris Pearl said Gov. Cuomo’s claims the state will lose rich people if we raise taxes is scaremongering. Even if we lost a few rich people in the short term, Pearl said the damage being wrought on underfunded schools, crumbling infrastructure and growing disparity will cost us far more and echo for generations.

I agree. As the crisis has brought to light, the long-term hazards of living in food deserts with heavy interstate truck traffic passing through helped create the “underlying conditions” we hear of. Spending formative years in buildings with no ventilation predictably have been landing students like mine in hospitals decades before COVID-19 hit our shores. 

We might all agree on objective science, but disagree on subjective policies, choosing to err either on the side of long term health and safety, or immediate considerations like the economy, child socialization and desperation to end “cabin fever.” Maybe it’s self-interest versus the greater public interest. Maybe it’s a cultural difference in priorities, or maybe just personalities.

But if we don’t stamp out and significantly eradicate the virus, anything that comes after involves trade-offs and whack-a-mole realities that risk prolonged steps backwards, as is happening now all over the nation. I hope parents and teachers would agree we are natural allies who should flip the script instead of infighting. 

Teachers know better than anyone the drawbacks of remote learning, but now that the vast majority of parents have discovered the alternative isn’t much better, let’s work together to adapt and improve. Scapegoating us for all the economic loss is right out of the “Waiting for Superman” playbook, barking up the wrong tree. If we saw half the articles faulting teachers directed instead at the multi-billionaires currently making out like fat cats, we’d be much farther along, evidenced by the success of countries who do not let the rich corrupt their political systems.

It’s heartening to learn that New York voters recently bestowed a historic veto-proof supermajority on State Senate Democrats, but even with this bottom-up mandate, calcified systemic inequity will not go away overnight. As parents and teachers have joined before to fight the waste and harms of standardized testing, my hope is that we can again pull together to lay bare the long-term deficiencies in our system, acknowledging these dreaded “learning gaps” are actually nothing new in certain neighborhoods. From bloated class sizes to the striking lack of wraparound services, arts programming and safe, modern facilities, teachers are indeed using this moment to advocate for improvements beyond the immediate reopening debate. 

So as we ask teachers, school workers and students to bear more risk, and as we debate full reopening without a vaccine, without adequate testing or ventilation, the next question is — what are New York’s billionaires being asked to sacrifice?

Jake Jacobs is a middle school teacher in the Bronx.