Why is education last, New York?

In-person schooling is an option we can’t afford to take away

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Most of New York has entered Phase 4 of re-opening following the COVID-19 pandemic that had us all hunkered in our houses from March through May. That means in addition to the services we were already allowed to access (retail stores, restaurants with outside seating, religious worship, working in the office, hair/nail salons, grocery stores – all with masks, of course), we are now also allowed to dine inside restaurants that have met social distancing protocols, engage in “low risk” arts and entertainment, and resume education.  Basically the only things still prohibited are going to the gym, the mall, and the movie theater. 

Given it says right there in the Stage Four guidance that education can resume, why is there so much debate about sending kids back in September? Why have we prioritized, as a state, educating our kids last, just above a workout and after getting our hair styled? 

Governor Cuomo has announced that he will make his decision about school re-openings by 7 August. Ahead of that time, he has asked schools to prepare plans for how they would prefer to reopen by 31 July, but take a look at all the requirements he’s asking schools to undertake and tell me whether you think he supports in-person schooling? 

While presenting a taxing list of demands for schools to try to meet, the governor gets to claim that he is advocating for schools to re-open—though he considers hybrid schooling (i.e. a mix of virtual and in-person) acceptable. Hybrid schooling, however, offers all the problems of virtual schooling, including widening the disparities between those who have access to technology/technology infrastructure and those who don’t AND offering a Sophie’s choice for working parents who will have to decide between showing up for their jobs to maintain financial/housing/food security and showing up for their kids and their education. 

Approximately one-third of children in the U.S. were from single-parent households as of 2017. Here in New York, 7.6 percent of households with children under 18 are led by single mothers. While not all of those children will be in the school system, and some single parents may be able to work from home, that’s still a statistically much larger number of kids whose safety is impacted by the decision to cancel in-person schooling than would be at risk of death from the Corona virus.  Per Statista, a provider of market and consumer data,

“For most single mothers a constant battle persists between finding the time and energy to raise their children and the demands of working to supply an income to house and feed their families. The pressures of a single income and the high costs of childcare mean that the risk of poverty for these families is a tragic reality. Comparison of the overall United States poverty rate since 1990 with that of the poverty rate for families with a female householder shows that poverty is much more prevalent in the later. In 2018, while the overall rate was at 11.8 percent, the rate of poverty for single mother families was 24.9 percent.”

In addition, virtual schooling stands to exacerbate the pre-existing economic and equity divides already tearing America’s social fabric. According to a 2018 study, over a half million households lack internet access in NYC alone (that’s one in six households). Consider how many more children across New York state lack access to technology or technology infrastructure to enable participation in virtual schooling. The households without internet are also found in greater numbers in areas of poverty, which means, essentially, that reliance on virtual or hybrid schooling will disproportionately effect the kids who most need the access to education to break the cycle of poverty.

Governor Cuomo indicated that his decision-making is data-driven, but which data is he considering and which is he throwing out? According the Centers for Disease Control, as of 15 July 2020, 31 children in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. There are another 157 deaths in the 15-24 years old range. Each of those is a tragic loss, to be sure, and the Wall Street Journal offered some perspective: “In a typical year 190 children die of the flu, 436 from suicide, 625 from homicide, and 4,114 from unintentional deaths such as drowning.”  675 children under the age of 12 died from car accidents in 2017, yet we never considered banning the transportation of children in cars.

“The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”

American Academy of Pediatrics report advocating a return to in-person schooling.

The governor says he wants to make sure schools are safe for kids.  According to the CDC data, schools ARE safe for kids. And many kids are safer and healthier in school than at home (particularly if their parents are not able to be at home with them because they have had to return to work). This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a report that states, “the AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school. The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.”

Given the AAP reporting, it makes me question why the state opted to enable non-essential workers to return to their offices and places of work, especially when for many it IS possible to work from home with few of the deleterious effects described above associated with school closure. Why is the governor threatening to stymie education while enabling private business to require its people return to the office? And why is there so little discussion of the impact on business of losing employees as working parents have to opt out to take care of children who are no longer safely in school? 

While certainly not the reason public education was established—that was, per educational reformer Horace Mann, designed to ensure an educated voting populace, a common civic culture, and a way to combat economic disparities—in-person education provides a critical social contract that has enabled generations of parents to engage in the workforce. It is economically and socially irresponsible for the government to ignore that protracted school closures will force millions of families to choose between earning an income or supervising their children.

Rather than seeking to drive education into the virtual realm, the state government could more productively lean on the private sector to excuse workers without penalty when they need to take sick days—as many as they need—for themselves and their kids. Anyone who has ever had a kid in the school system knows that this is one of the real challenges schools face with any virus. Parents who do not have enough leave, or who will face a financial penalty if they don’t show up for work and have no child care alternatives, have had little option in the past other than to send their kids in to the schools and hope for the best. But the answer to poor private sector practices regarding leave and social health is not to close the schools. The answer is to change the system so that the possibility, or better yet the incentive, exists for parents to keep sick kids at home. With quarantining being a reality for us all for the foreseeable future, updating the way we used to think about leave policies is a requirement the government should be pushing. 

Virtual schooling should absolutely be an alternative to in-person instruction that parents can choose if they feel a physical return would be too great a risk to the health of their child or someone in their household. The benefits here are wins for all. 

  • Offering virtual lessons would lower the number of kids in the school system at any time, lessening opportunities for any virus to spread and reducing class sizes.
  • It could offer a way for teachers who also feel at risk from in-classroom activity to continue to teach.
  • Virtual schooling could help limit how much a child falls behind if they are out for several days, including for quarantining if they suspect that they could have been exposed to the virus. 

What virtual/hybrid schooling shouldn’t be is a replacement for in-person schooling. It takes away too many choices for too many people. It endangers too many kids. It leaves too many out of education all together. 

If you are against virtual/hybrid schooling, and believe that education is a fundamental right that we should be prioritizing over the other luxuries the governor has deemed more important, then the time to write to your state representatives, or the governor himself, for a return to in-person, non-hybrid education is right now

Right now school districts across New York are trying to figure out how they can meet all of Governor Cuomo’s demands to get students back in schools. Help them out. Write to your state representatives. Write to the governor. Let them know you want to see in-person schooling resume in a meaningful, non-hybrid capacity. 

Use this link to find your New York State Senator or send an email using this one.

Use this link to find your New York State Assembly member. There you can find contact information, including addresses and email. 

And don’t forget to send an email to Governor Cuomo.

If you want to take the next step, consider contacting your NY Senators Kirsten Gillibrand or Charles Schumer.

Use this link to identify your Congressional Representative.

And don’t forget to reach out to your schools. Contact your superintendents, school principals, and school board members. Tell them how much they mean to you, and how much you’re doing to support their efforts to get kids back into the buildings where they learn. 

Not sure what to say? Here’s a draft letter that you can copy/paste and edit as you see fit. 

Dear Governor Cuomo, 

I’m writing to tell you that I think it is imperative that children in the state of New York resume full-time, in-person, non-hybrid schooling in September. According the Centers for Disease Control, the coronavirus is unlikely to make schools unsafe for students. Further, many kids are safer in schools than at home, especially now that many parents are under pressure to return to work. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a report that states, 

[T]he AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school. The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.”

Why are you prioritizing education—a fundamental requirement for a functional civil society and for addressing economic disparities—last? Why have you enacted policies that clearly put the needs of kids, working parents, and the economy after shopping, dining out, and getting haircuts? 

Prove you can be the leader you set out to be at the start of the pandemic by enabling schools to resume in-person, non-hybrid education for all students who wish to do so. Consider urging businesses to implement humane leave policies so that New Yorkers can keep themselves and their children at home when they are ill, without facing penalties, rather than closing down one of the most critical institutions working to protect and enrich children across our state.

Sincerely,  

(voter)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *