New tensions in New York
Will New York City keep schools open for young children and those with the most complex disabilities, even as its virus numbers climb? The answer remains unclear as the political battle lines were redrawn yet again this week.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that the state would drop its plan to close schools if the positivity rate hit 9 percent by the state’s metrics, leaving the decision to local leaders. And Mayor Bill de Blasio said the roughly 190,000 children attending school in person should have the option to stay there: “The safest place in New York City is, of course, our public schools.”
But the city’s teachers’ union, which had previously joined with the mayor to support open classrooms, said that schools should close if virus rates keep climbing.
“I get frustrated when they continue to change these policies,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the union, the United Federation of Teachers, in a television interview. “All it’s doing is causing more fear and anxiety, and that’s going to lead to a fight.”
The shift means New York City could be in for a disruptive showdown between the union and city hall, as in Chicago, where hundreds of teachers defied a city order to report to school buildings this week.
A quick word about numbers: New York City and New York State calculate the test positivity rate in different ways. According to the city, its positivity rate is already above 9 percent; according to the state it is just over 6 percent. The union wants to close schools if the city hits the 9 percent mark as calculated by the state. (Yes, this is unnecessarily complicated.)
The city’s in-school test positivity rate is low, but it’s rising: In December, 0.67 percent of tests were positive, up from 0.28 percent through the end of November.
And as our colleagues Eliza Shapiro and J. David Goodman report, about 700,000 city students have already chosen to learn from home full time, so the latest political battle may be largely irrelevant to their families. Many of the kids attending school are toggling back and forth in hybrid mode, or dealing with sudden quarantines that force them back into remote learning for days or weeks.
That means remote learning is hugely important, even as parents and teachers complain it has been treated as an afterthought. Thousands of children still lack reliable devices and internet access. And time is running out to salvage the most brutal and frustrating school year in recent memory.
Teachers on TV?
Once upon a time, before the internet piped through our pockets, there was educational public television. Now, in the pandemic, teachers are back on TV, trying to engage children stuck in the doldrums of distance learning.
For some families, the programs supplement online lessons. For others, they serve a more critical role: reaching students who, without reliable internet access or a laptop at home, have been left behind. (Not everyone has a computer, but 96 percent of Americans have a working television set, according to Nielsen.)
Educators also say the programs have helped children form deep connections with the teachers they see onscreen. That type of relationship, so common in classrooms, can be tough to reproduce through remote learning.
“Students are able to focus on the lesson, on a larger screen, and with a medium that’s comfortable,” said Melinda Spaulding Chevalier, a former TV news anchor who pitched the concept to her local Fox station in March.
The programs have cropped up countrywide. Some air on weekends or after school. Elsewhere, districts have scheduled time to watch it during the school day.
“They have Dora and ‘Blues Clues’ and all that, but this is people,” said Latoya Pitcher, whose 4-year-old son, Levi, is a devoted fan. “That’s what they lost with shelter-in-place: seeing people every day.”
Around the country
Colleges across the country have made last-minute delays to their spring calendars, or opted to start the spring semester with all-remote instruction.
The University of California at San Diego installed 11 vending machines for free self-testing kits on campus.
Greg Gard, the men’s basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin, postponed the planned Sunday game against Penn State University. “I couldn’t honestly look at my parents and their players and say: ‘I’m confident in the environment we’re walking into,’” Gard told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A good read: Through strict regulations, Dartmouth College has kept infection rates low. But, Emily Lu reported for The Dartmouth, the student paper, “some students and parents raised concerns that the regulations came at a cost to mental health, as gathering rules meant many students weathered the pandemic largely alone.”
Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon is pushing for a return to classrooms by Feb. 15, before many teachers and other key staff members will have received vaccines.
A principal in Kentucky got a commercial driver’s license so she could drive students to school after the school’s only bus drivers contracted the coronavirus.
In memoriam: Jamie Seitz, an elementary school physical education teacher and high school coach in North Carolina, died of the coronavirus. He was 51. “He made the worst athlete and the best athlete in a class feel equally special,” his friend Scott Fowler, a sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer, wrote in a moving tribute.
A good read: Last month, Slate took a deep dive into tensions in Brookline, Mass., over the reopening debate. It’s a long piece, but perhaps the best we’ve read on the “Nice White Parents” dynamic during the pandemic.
‘It’s not getting any easier’
Tiya Birru, a high school student, wrote a stark piece in YR Media about life in remote learning.
“Even though I’m months into remote learning, it’s not getting any easier to do school online,” Birru wrote. “In fact, it’s actually getting even harder for me.”
Birru interviewed two peers about their experiences.
“I feel like I let everything go up until the deadline to finish it,” said Leroy Yau, a senior in Oakland, Calif. “I just don’t really get motivation from seeing other people’s screen.”
“I’m completely burned out,” said Ilana Drake, a senior in New York City. “And I know that there’s senioritis. But I think the burnout is from being on Zoom all day.”