Restaurants and Broadway Are Coming Back. What About Our Schools?

As the city reopens, parents, teachers and students remain stuck in a hybrid-learning holding pattern.

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On the morning of May 1, about a hundred parents deeply aggrieved at how the academic year has panned out and concerned about the next, gathered in a playground in East Harlem to demand that the city’s public schools reopen fully and without delay. The agenda might have confounded anyone who has not paid close attention to all the preceding chaos.

Theoretically, schools are open; the buildings are hardly padlocked. In February, after the youngest grades had returned to school, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that middle-school students would be welcomed back in classrooms after months spent learning online at home; several weeks later, high-schoolers would follow. Ever since, in the spirit of self-congratulation, his administration has repeatedly pointed out that New York “has more students learning in person than any other city in the country.”

Leaving aside that such an outcome would surely be true by default — the school system is the nation’s largest — the experience of students who have ostensibly returned to classrooms is vastly different from the rhetoric. “In-person” is a vague designation. What has enraged so many parents of middle- and high-school students is the form that late-stage pandemic learning has too often taken: a child in a classroom with a laptop listening to a teacher beaming in from somewhere else, even as viral case rates have plummeted and vaccination has progressed. Still, this setup in many cases is preferable to those days when children are meant to be at home learning “asynchronously.”

Although format varies from school to school, on these mornings and afternoons of flying solo, there is no Zoom instruction at all, just assigned work, often delivered with little guidance, as one Brooklyn high school student described her experience. The lack of accountability and the apathy it was breeding bothered her. Students have grown accustomed to solving math problems with apps and often the responsibility of completing assignments is shared collectively — with one person handling the job of conjugating verbs for French class and simply passing along the work.

These unstructured days are the ones, parents will tell you, when it is not uncommon to find a 14-year-old still lingering in bed at noon. The teenager, naturally inclined to languish, has now been provided with all the foundation she needs for never leaving her room and giving up.

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The long-term effects of all this isolation, academic descent and learned indifference are hard — and dispiriting — to predict, but the problem cannot reasonably be laid at the feet of teachers, who over and over have shown extraordinary dedication during a year of unequaled crisis, bringing iPads, food and comfort to students struggling with remote learning. It is the system that surrounds them that has rarely displayed the same creativity and stretch.

Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

At the outset of the academic year, when vaccines were still in development, the Department of Education granted medical accommodations to 28 percent of teachers, allowing them to stay home through June, regardless of when a vaccine might surface. As a result, even though teachers were prioritized for immunization early on, those who hadn’t been coming in to school were not required to do so after they received their shots.

Beyond that, during negotiations with the teachers’ union, the city agreed that teachers who taught in person would not be made to livestream their classes to online students, compounding the problem of staffing shortages given how many students — three-quarters of the roughly one million in the system — had opted for fully remote learning in September.

According to the Department of Education, there are now 378,000 students attending school in person, with 70 percent of all schools providing “in person” instruction five days a week. But when I pressed the department to tell me how many of these students were getting taught by a physically present teacher at least twice a week, spokesmen could not or would not answer.

Even as officials have announced that restaurants can return to full-capacity on May 19, that the city will fully reopen in July, that Broadway will be back in September — you can buy a ticket for the Alanis Morissette-inspired musical “Jagged Little Pill” right this minute — the city has not made it emphatically clear what school will look like in the fall. Though the stated goal is to have everyone back in the classroom, the department has not yet “issued guidance’’ as one spokeswoman put it, for what sort of Covid-related medical accommodations might be given to teachers in the coming months.

Among parents who have been fighting for open schools all year, Rachel Fremmer, an out-of-work librarian and the child of two New York City public schoolteachers, has been one of the most vocal. Her daughter, a student at LaGuardia, which specializes in the arts, is in the building only on Thursdays and just for two hours and 45 minutes. On Mondays her remote school day is over at 1:10 p.m. On Tuesdays there is an only an hour of online Italian. This term her daughter is receiving no math or English instruction at all.

Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Recently a friend with children in private school noticed Ms. Fremmer’s daughter in Riverside Park in the early afternoon and was confused. “Anyone who doesn’t have a child in public school thinks schools are open,” Ms. Fremmer said. “If a store had hours like this, with random, nonconsecutive times for online shopping, you wouldn’t call it open.” I asked her what her daughter and her friends were doing with all of this free time that they didn’t necessarily want. “They’re teenagers, so they are sleeping and watching Netflix,’’ she told me.

Ms. Fremmer was one of the parents who showed up at the East Harlem rally, one that had been planned for a long time, in conjunction with the Harlem Jets, a community group that provides after-school athletic and academic programming to local children. The mayoral candidates Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia, who denounced “Zoom in a room,” were also there. And so were a group of counterprotesters whose fliers promoting their own gathering, featured a picture of a masked Black girl with a pencil in her hand and the words: “Our children are not props to push an unsafe opening for all.” Sashes worn by teachers at the rally read: “We will not die for DOE.”

Despite the hyperbole, opponents of the open-schools movement are not unilaterally against opening schools, nor are those seeking more live schooling for their children, demanding that everyone return to the classroom no matter their fears or mistrust of the system. But none of these truths has spared the debate from an incendiary turn to the divisively politicized language of race and class.

“What we saw at the field on Saturday is white supremacy at its best,’’ Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, one of the organizers of the counter protest, told me. A neuroscientist and distinguished lecturer in medicine at the City University of New York, she had little use for white parents coming to East Harlem, where she lives, and advancing their own agendas, blind, she believed, to the problems that have plagued Black and brown communities for so long.

“These folks are coming into the neighborhood who are not from the neighborhood; they don’t have to worry about going into the hospital and having ICE come pick them up,’’ she said. Here now, was a narrative about an army of oblivious, entitled Karens and all the inequity they never bothered to recognize.

Did it have to be this way? Had the city optimized virtual education for the hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and brown children whose parents and caregivers had signed them up for full-time distance learning at the start of the year, after the virus had relentlessly devastated poor communities, the inequities would not now be as grave, the rancor not as intense. Although white children make up the minority in the city’s school system, they are over represented in live learning.

Dr. Salas-Ramirez, who is the president of the Community Education Council in her district, fought to get iPads from the department of education for remote learners in her district who needed them; as late as February the city was still coming up 400 short. The losses have not been distributed evenly, but there have been so many of them to go around.

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