October 20, 2020

Being a parent of school-aged kids during COVID is to be helpless in the face of failed leaders

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  • In New York, parenting in the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic made last spring a marathon of horror.
  • We hoped, at least, we could rely on school returning by September. 
  • But even with six months to do their jobs, the mayor, schools chancellor, and teachers’ union all failed. Now students and parents suffer with no end in sight.
  • “Remote learning” is better than nothing, but it isn’t real school. I’ve pretty much accepted my kids won’t learn anything for another year.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

There’s nothing quite like the sheer terror of being unable to find the charger for a school-issued Chromebook with 2% left on its battery at 8:58 AM. A third grader’s anxiety at the prospect of missing “morning meeting” is palpable. 

Alas, this is parenting grade school kids during the coronavirus pandemic. 

That scenario, harrowing in a relatively inconsequential way, is an improvement from last spring, when the same child had emotional breakdowns over the anxiety of Zoom meetings. That she’s now enthusiastic about staring at a computer all day is a huge quality of life improvement. 

But I’ve pretty much accepted she’ll barely learn a thing this year. 

Third grade is when long division and times tables are beaten into young brains, but a few weeks into our first full year of COVID-era public school, remote learning doesn’t work any better than it did a few months ago. 

It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, and it absolutely didn’t have to be this way. We had been told to pause our lives for “15 days to slow the spread.” That was 202 days ago. 

Even with all the time in the world, our civic “leaders” and public institutions failed the kids. 

Nothing works in the richest country’s richest city

The chaos of March 2020, when it was clear New York was becoming the epicenter for the COVID pandemic in the US, soon became the horror of April 2020. 

The constant wailing of ambulance sirens. The total lockdowns. The unavailability of masks, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes. The refrigerated trucks filled with bodies. The melancholy nightly “clap outs” from fire escapes for the hospital shift changes. 

This was life in New York City, for months.  

Schools were officially closed for the remainder of the school year on April 11. And ever since that time of palpable dread, I had the sinking feeling that come September schools would still be closed, and we’d face a long, lonely winter indoors. The short dark days would be endured all while trying to earn a living, fill in the huge gaps in our kids’ education, and maintain the family’s mental health.  

But because this is New York City — the richest and biggest city in America which spends more per pupil on education than any municipality in the nation — nothing works. 

A progressive Democratic mayor, schools chancellor, and teachers’ union have had over six months to come to an agreement and competently execute a plan that provides meaningful education and a safe work environment. 

Instead, we’re working with patchworks of plans that seem to change weekly. Appropriately, the start to the school year was delayed twice, the second time just three days before they were set to open. 

And Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools chancellor Richard Carranza still haven’t been able to get enough personal protective equipment (PPE) or cleaning supplies to the schools, which they obviously need a whole lot of to maintain a relatively COVID-free environment. 

De Blasio, as feckless a leader as New York has ever known, agreed to a teachers’ union demand so selfish and unworkable it seems designed to fail. 

At the union’s behest, there will now be three sets of NYC public school teachers. 

One set will work from home teaching the students who have opted for fully remote learning. Another set of teachers will work in school buildings, teaching the rotating groups of students who adopted for “blended learning” — a mix of remote learning and one or two days per week in school. 

But those same teachers will not teach those same students on their days of remote learning. Those duties are reserved for a third group of teachers. And that means “blended learning” students get no teacher-student continuity. 

It also means that, according to the principals’ union, the city needs to interview, vet, hire, and train 12,000 teachers. 

In negotiating, that’s known as a poison pill. 

The teachers’ union must know that hiring 12,000 teachers during an unprecedented sudden budget crunch is far less feasible than it is to have teachers figure out how to teach to the kids in class and the kids at home at the same time. 

But the union isn’t in this to make the school year happen for the kids, their members will be paid regardless of whether or not schools open. 

Inexplicably, De Blasio didn’t even consult the principals’ union before making the deal with the teachers’ union, according to Chalk beat New York. The principals’ union called the agreement “grossly irresponsible.”

This, and an accusation that principals were pressured by the city to underreport the number of teachers they needed to hire, led to a shocking vote of “no confidence” in the mayor’s ability to lead. The principals’ union also called for the mayor and Carranza to cede control of the schools until after the pandemic.

Carranza’s lucky to have De Blasio around as the more prominent face of New York’s education failure. The City Council felt the need to subpoena Carranza’s Department of Education for being less than forthcoming with last spring’s online attendance records to find out just how far behind New York’s kids are slipping, educationally.

Among the DOE’s other failures are terrible communication with teachers and parents, failing to inspect the schools’ ventilation systems, and reneging on a promise to provide child-care for parents in need

Despite having the entire summer plus several months prior to work out a plan with the teachers’ union for outdoor learning, it wasn’t until the last week of August that such a plan was approved. Which of course, makes it worthless. There’s no time to implement it on the fly. 

Meanwhile, NYC’s remote learning system is plagued by technical difficulties.

What Carranza has done is hire more members of his executive staff, six-figure salaries and all, despite a citywide hiring freeze and his testimony before the city council in which he argued “There is no fat to cut, there is no meat to cut — we are at the bone.”

Touting the motto “Never waste a good crisis,” Carranza has called for the cancellation of standardized state testing, without suggesting that they be replaced with anything. An opponent of “screened” schools, Carranza has been waiting for his moment to “make the good schools worse, never the bad schools better,” as the writer (and New York City public school parent) Karol Markowicz put it.

The mayor, the schools chancellor, and the teachers’ union have had over six months to do their jobs. They’ve all failed, though only the students and parents will pay for those failures. 

When asked by a reporter in May when parents could expect information that they could use to plan their lives around, the mayor gave a decidedly De Blasio answer:

“It’s May for god’s sake… We will make the decision at the right time.”

For god’s sake, indeed. 

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