By Lucas Brady Woods
The city released the first details of its public school reopening plan on Wednesday, and made it clear that most students will get a mix of remote and in-person learning. The plans provide a basic framework that still leaves enormous gaps for children on the Upper West Side, depending on their background, special needs and the work schedules of the parents.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced that schools will use a mix of in-person and remote learning in the fall, with in-person attendance for most students limited to two or three days per week in order to accommodate social distancing. According to de Blasio, the situation will vary depending on each school’s needs and capabilities, with specific plans to be determined this month by school principals, who will let parents know in August which days their children can report to school. He says any parent will be able to choose fully remote learning for their children if they prefer.
De Blasio also says that the extent of school reopening depends on the city’s continued progress in fighting the coronavirus, and that the plan will be adjusted in accordance with public health officials and data.
“Everything we do will be with a very high bar in regard to health and safety,” the mayor said this morning. “We’re gonna put every precaution in place, test to make sure they’re working, and as we’ve said many times, things can change along the way.”
The New York City Department of Education updated the plan on its website today as well. The department’s website says the DOE is investing in technology and updating its curriculum in order to support blended learning, which means a mix of in-person and remote learning, as the mayor announced. The DOE also echoes de Blasio by saying any family can opt into fully remote learning if they choose, but that the majority of families want as much in-person learning as possible.
“Make no mistake,” the DOE says on its website. “New York City students will still be learning 5 days a week.”
But with only about two months left until school starts, Upper West Side parents say they have numerous concerns about the upcoming academic year and no guidance so far on how they should begin to address them.
The parents who spoke to West Side Rag expressed concerns that vary depending on the particular needs of their child and family. Marlene Hidalgo is the coordinator at Bloomingdale Family Center’s Parent Leadership Program, a group that advocates for low-income parents. She also has two daughters in elementary school.
She says the pandemic has exacerbated inequities that already exist between schools that serve different communities. She’s concerned that low income students and students of color will fall disproportionately behind their peers as a result.
Hidalgo says schools’ resources differ greatly from school to school, and that the quality of remote learning depends on a school’s resources. Her youngest daughter, Devina, just finished kindergarten at PS 75 on 96th Street and West End Avenue. Her nephew also just finished kindergarten, but at PS 165, only about 12 blocks away. According to Hidalgo, while her daughter received a tablet stocked with apps to help her learn remotely, her nephew received a pre-recorded Youtube video and a few printouts.
“For kids who are behind, it’s like they’re not being taught,” she says. “You can send a kid a worksheet of this new material, but if they don’t know how to do it, and the parents aren’t home, how are they going to learn it?”
Childcare is especially a concern for many low-income families. Hidalgo says working parents often can’t afford to take time off, nor can they afford childcare, which often leaves their children lacking the supervision and discipline needed to benefit from remote learning. That, she says, will also contribute to them falling further and further behind.
There’s also a concern among parents that students with disabilities will be disadvantaged as plans solidify for the fall academic year.
Natasha Price is a special needs advocate based on the Upper West Side. Her son, Mason, has a developmental disability that requires additional therapy and supportive services to be included in his education. Many of those services are mandated by the Department of Education, through the Individualized Education Program. The process for creating an IEP includes a meeting between the student, their parent and educators, mental health professionals and city officials in order to determine the child’s educational needs, according to the Department of Education website.
Since Mason is entering the 6th grade and starting at a new school, he needed to be reevaluated for his IEP. But Price says when the pandemic closed the courts, it created a backlog in the schedule of IEP hearings which has in turn delayed services for Mason and other students. She says Mason has already missed four weeks of the classes that would have been mandated by his IEP because of the delay in his hearing.
According to Price, the in-person aspect of school is very important for special needs kids and she’s worried they will fall through the cracks if the new academic year includes a lot of remote learning. She says she’s already received calls about some special needs students regressing.
“The main concern I have is the continuation of services,” she says, “Academics are very important. But socialization is the most important, and you can’t do that remotely.”
Another parent, Kari Docter, has two kids, one in middle school and the other in elementary school. Docter and her husband are both musicians at the Metropolitan Opera and live on the Upper West Side. Both have also been furloughed as a result of the pandemic and have relocated temporarily to Minnesota where her parents live.
She says one of her concerns is being able to afford living in Manhattan now that neither she nor her husband are working. She’s considering making the relocation permanent.
“We don’t know when we’re going back to work,” she said. “How do we manage a family being in New York City? What are we gonna do, move into my parents basement?”
But Docter says she considers herself lucky to even have the option of leaving the city. At the end of the day, she says she’s most concerned about the obstacles presented by the pandemic that are facing low-income families, families who may have no choice but to stay put and keep working.
Marlene Hidalgo, for one, has hopes for a silver lining. She says that the pandemic is shining a bright light on inequities in education, and that maybe, when it’s over, society will be more willing and able to fix them.