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.



‘Schooling from home’ impacts reveal need for in-classroom schooling

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

As many of us emerge from our pandemic cocoons, sinking into summer schedules that no longer include the daily battles dubbed “virtual learning,” it is tempting to shut the door on the past few months and try to forget them. It would be easy to allow the dull heat to erase the emotional turmoil that accompanied the chaotic springtime shift to social distancing and schooling from home. Especially with all the important social changes being discussed right now, it’s tempting to rely on “someone else” to sort out what will happen with schooling in the fall.

It’s tempting, but it’s also dangerous. Taxpayer dollars directly fund the state education systems that we, as a society, rely on to turn out educated, adjusted, productive citizens. Therefore, as tax payers, we need to make ourselves heard regarding our preferences. 

The lessons learned from our national experiment of virtual schooling from home need to be examined closely before we make any decisions about what is to happen to our children’s education in the fall. Already some public school districts are rolling out plans that severely limit students’ ability to receive in-school education for the rest of this calendar year. But where is the public dialogue that is informing these decisions? Are we critically questioning the data on which these decisions are based? 

We’ve become a nation fascinated by infection rate and mortality statistics, and seem content to let these data sets, flawed as they may be, drive all other policies. Where are the statistics on the impact of “schooling from home” on: 

Students’ educational achievements? 

An NWEA working paper acknowledges that there is little data as yet, but that projections indicate students are likely to have only met two-thirds of expected progress in reading and less than half of expected progress in math as a result of school closures.

Students’ physical and emotional well-being?

Again, calls for research abound but meaningful data is still scarce. A United Nations policy paper reported, “Lockdowns and shelter in place measures come with heightened risk of children witnessing or suffering violence and abuse… . Children’s reliance on online platforms for distance learning has also increased their risk of exposure to inappropriate content and online predators.” 

Additionally, a survey conducted by a British charity supporting mental health for children and youth reported that 83 percent of respondents felt the pandemic had made their pre-existing mental health conditions worse. 

How virtual schooling impacts the disparities between affluent and not-affluent communities? 

A June New York Times article reports on a study conducted by Brown and Harvard Universities that revealed “student progress in math decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes and not at all in classrooms in high-income ZIP codes.”

Parents’ (and especially mothers’) ability to work?

RAND published insights on the U.S. populations group suffering most from the closure of schools and child care, based on data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Current Population Surveys, including that approximately 75 percent of U.S. households have children under 14, and up to 26 million families had no access to in-home child care during the pandemic.

The New York Times took a closer look at the impact on working mothers, highlighting that experts are predicting mothers are “more likely to lose a job and more likely to shoulder the load of closed schools and day care. For many working mothers, the gradual reopening won’t solve their problems, but compound them — forcing them out of the labor force or into part-time jobs while increasing their responsibilities at home. The impact could last a lifetime, reducing their earning potential and work opportunities.”

This article raised troubling questions for me about educator well-being, especially when the teachers expected to conduct virtual classrooms are also parents of younger kids. I’ve watched several friends struggle through this challenge since March, and was therefore disappointed that I could find no research or reporting on this segment of the U.S. workforce on whom so many of us have been depending for so much. 

As a result, I wanted to begin the dialogue on the importance of resuming in-person schooling locally by recognizing the incredible efforts our child’s teachers exerted during the pandemic. To that end, I waited until after the academic year was over and grades submitted, then sent letters to both of our son’s teachers thanking them for their resilience, dedication to their students, and caring. I also sent a letter to the school principal, emphasizing the excellence of the teachers’ performances and also stating my hope that school will resume in the fall. I’m happy to share copies of these letters with anyone who would like to use them. Just let me know in the comments. 

I know others who have written to their local legislators and state officials, and I would be grateful if they felt like sharing their experiences in the comments. I plan to do that too, and also to engage with my congressional representative on this issue. The more widely each of us reaches out, the more respectful dialogue we can promote, the more likely we are to come up with a solution that will serve our children as well as our society. 

Scheduling Summer in the Space Between

Making time for creativity and your kids in the wake of COVID-19

Photo by Cassidy Kelley on Unsplash

Usually at this time of year, The Space Between would be focused on providing helpful articles on how to set up summer schedules to prevent the infamous “summer slide” without an over-reliance on screens.  Or how to select summer camps to optimize enrichment opportunities and to get everyone out of the house so that writers can write. 

Thanks to COVID-19, the jury’s still out on summer camp here in New York. We’re schooling from home for another few weeks, but with summer looming on this Memorial Day weekend, and most of the country in some phase between lock-down and “next normal,” what should we be doing as parents to prepare our kids for summer? As creatives, how in the midst of this uncertainty, do we provide for the time we need to work on our craft? 

Furthermore, how are we supposed to manage any of it when the ability to set and stick to a schedule has changed week-by-week, and sometimes day-by-day, for the past two months? 

There are two schools of thought on this. Those who love structure (hello, Plotters!) schedule your kids’ time and your writing time. It’s all on the calendar (virtual, plannered, or both), and the calendar rules! No excuses. The Muse comes when She comes, but she’ll know where to find you better if you make yourself regularly available. And your kids will thrive when there’s a set routine.

The other way of thinking, which I’ve advocated before, is that there are seasons to parenting and writing, and it’s best to go with the flow (Camp Pantser). If your family needs you more right now, or your mental and emotional exhaustion has your well running dry, then take the time that you need to take care of yourself. And to take care of your kids, who are dealing with all the changes keeping us all off balance, but with less life experience to help them find their center. Find ways to replenish. Give yourself some grace. Live to write another day and be gentle with yourself, and the small humans in your care, in the meantime.  

Continue reading “Scheduling Summer in the Space Between”

The Working Parent’s School Closure Survival Guide

Or how to stay sane in the face of COVID-19

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

It feels unreal. For most of us in the first world, there’s been nothing like this pandemic in our lives, and probably not in the lives of our parents.  We’ve gotten so busy, so connected, so smart (or at least our phones have), but in the process we’ve fallen out of touch with seasons, with communities, and with the power of Mother Nature. Germs, as it turns out, don’t care about our priorities (though they do love our smart phones, so wipe those down please). It’s unsettling. The panic in the grocery stores is downright disturbing. And to top it all off, now we’ve got to find a way to balance the competing demands to telework (maintain social distancing to flatten the curve!) AND to take care of your kids at home while schools are closed.

It’s a lot to take on, for sure. Now consider: If the grown ups are stressed, so are your kids. After all, kids thrive on routine and pretty much everything about their lives is being disrupted—activities, school, family patterns. 

Good news though! Freelancers face the work-from-home-while-balancing-the-kids issue regularly. It’s tricky, and every kid-parent dynamic is different, but let me share some hard-earned hacks I’ve gathered over the past few years, plus a few additional resources that are coming online in response to this horrible virus.

Routine Success

Like I said, kids love routine, so the best way to forge ahead is to develop a routine and stick to it.

Neuropsychology and Education Services for Children and Adolescents (NESCA) posted this great chart developed by Jessica McHale Photography. See those blocks for academic, creative, or chore time? Depending on the ages of your kids and their self-sufficiency, those are times that you can set the tasks to be done and then focus on your own work. For some, it might be possible to work during afternoon fresh air time too.

Now is the time to get real about how many hours you actually need to get your job done…without all the daily office rigmarole, you may find that you can accomplish your required tasks in fewer than 8 hours.

Parent Hack

If you’ve got some flexibility in the hours you work, you may also want to consider waking up early to get some hours in before the kids are up. I’m not a happy member of the 5 a.m. club, but I get loads of work done after my kid goes to bed, around 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Now is the time to get real about how many hours you actually need to get your job done. For some, there will be scheduled hours that we are required online for virtual services. For others, without all the daily office rigmarole, you may find that you can accomplish your required tasks in fewer than 8 hours. The more hours you can squeeze into non-kid time, the easier this will be for you all. 

What to do with ‘academic time’

One thing I love about this chart is that it sticks to a schedule that should be familiar to pretty much any school-age kid. The question many parents are facing is what/how to teach them from home, especially if you’re trying to do your own work too. If you’re lucky, your kids’ teachers provided some take home work before the schools were closed, or the schools are rolling out online platforms to enable kids to stay engaged with their curriculum. At which point, roll out those worksheets or reading pages or online lessons until they run dry. 

If you weren’t so lucky, or the materials aren’t going to stretch for the whole time, consider adding in some commercial learning books. These not only will keep the kids busy, but will make school re-entry that much less painful. Our son loves workbooks from Teacher Created Resources. Their books are tailored to grade levels and run pretty true to level, in our experience. In addition to the TCR site, you can order workbooks through many online distributors, such as Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. 

Continue reading “The Working Parent’s School Closure Survival Guide”