Everything about school this year feels like a trap designed to snare parents in contradictions.
We never wanted to go back to remote school. But since our leadership squandered its chance to lower national virus transmission rates in time to open schools safely, a lot of parents are choosing remote-only education for their kids this fall.
We never wanted our teachers to have to teach in masks. Now, we're just hoping the PTA has enough money to buy masks with the built-in transparent panels, so kids can see their teachers' faces—and that the school has enough money to put safety measures in place to keep teachers safe while they work.
We never wanted our kids to be stuck in desks lined up in rows, with no small group work or face-to-face socialization. Now, we're lucky if that's what the classroom looks like, because at least that means the school is taking public health recommendations seriously.
We never wanted any of this.
When it comes to deciding whether or not to send children to school this fall, we're all making decisions from a menu of terrible choices.
For parents facing this difficult choice, the CDC recently published a "school decision-making tool" that breaks down the many factors that could influence our decision. The really big questions are these:
- Does your child have an underlying health condition that could make them especially vulnerable to the virus?
- Do you live with (or is your child's caregiver) someone who has an underlying health condition that could make them especially vulnerable to the virus?
- Is the level of community spread in your area high?
- Is your school unable to follow the safety recommendations made by public health experts to help prevent kids, teachers and staff from getting sick?
If your answer to ANY of these questions is "yes," I would be the last person on Earth to say you should send your child to school—just taking my lead from the many scientists and public health experts who are saying the exact same thing.
But in my particular case, because of the makeup of my family, my hometown and my school community, the answer to each of those critical questions is "no." We live in New York City, where state governor Andrew Cuomo just announced schools could reopen this fall, if positive virus test rates in each school's community remain lower than 5%.
If our school opens, I will send my daughter for in-person instruction.
Reason 1: We're not high-risk, and neither is anyone in our caregiving circle or workplace.
We do not have health conditions that put us at risk, and while we miss our daughter's grandparents, no one in our immediate household or caregiving circle is high-risk either. Our daughter is fine with wearing a mask if it means she can attend school, and is old enough to understand its importance. My husband and I both work from home, which further minimizes our risk of potentially infecting others outside our family.
I am painfully aware that most families are not this fortunate. We don't have to choose between sending our child to school and seeing our child's grandparents, and all too many families are faced with exactly that terrible choice right now.
Reason 2: We live in a community with fewer than 10 new cases per day per 100,000 people, and a test positivity rate under 5%.
I live in New York City, where my daughter attends a large, public elementary school in Brooklyn. In my city, 1 in 370 people died this spring.
New York City was the epicenter of the epicenter a few months ago. But as of this writing, New York City's positive test rate has been hovering around 1% for weeks, even with thousands of tests administered each day. The virus transmission rate is fewer than 10 new daily cases per 100,000 people—in fact yesterday, it was 3.4.
That ratio—10 new cases per 100,000 people per day—is as close to a magic number as we have right now. It's the ratio that public health experts have been urging communities to meet before even thinking about reopening schools—and then only with all the recommended precautions in place, including masks, staggered starts, small cohorts of students, intense sanitization and on-site health screenings.
The fact that New York City is even able to consider opening schools this fall is a testament to the city's collective determination. Many, many people made sacrifices and changes so that our kids could face a lower risk in returning to school. Our local and state leaders came up with a super-granular, data-obsessed, 7-point and 4-phase plan for reopening, and then stuck to it, even when it hurt. And in large part, the good people of New York City wore the masks, stayed inside, skipped the party, got the takeout, worked from home, and did all the things we know help to slow the spread of this disease—the proof is in the pudding. Yes, we all miss eating out, and bars, and parties and people. But there's something big at stake here. (Side note to all our childless friends: On behalf of parents with school-age kids, thank you. YOU helped make it so kids could maybe possibly go to school this fall. Thank you.)
In 40 out of 50 states right now, the numbers do not reflect this possibility. In all too many communities, the case ratio is way above the threshold experts recommend. And in all too many areas, local leaders are pretending it's safe to open schools despite high levels of community spread.
If I lived in a community where there were more than 10 new cases per 100,000 people per day, I would not send my daughter to in-person school—my choice would be different. I am humbly, profoundly grateful to the many people who made painful sacrifices so that I—and other New York City parents—could have this choice.
Reason 3: My school has a detailed plan in place.
My daughter's school is attended by a diverse mix of students from almost every background. It's a Title 1 school, which means enough low-income students make up the student body that the school qualifies for additional federal funding, as well as free breakfast and lunch service. Our principal is a 30+ year veteran administrator and educator who works magic on behalf of our kids—although I know it is not, in fact, magic but hard work and dedication.
For our school, there's no miraculous pot of gold that's going to pay for the extra cleaning, the extra staff, the extra supplies, the extra curriculum and technology needs. Schools like ours desperately need our federal government to finally pass the second round of coronavirus relief legislation that's been sitting half-baked in Congress all summer, with funds earmarked for schools to enact the many (costly) changes that reopening safely will require.
All the same, leaders at my daughter's school have spent the spring and summer coming up with detailed plans for social-emotional learning, curriculum updates, schedule changes, building upgrades and safety measures, and they've communicated these plans to parents.
I support my school. I am committed to helping my school however I can do it. And while I am as worried about my daughter's education (and my own ability to work) as anybody else, I personally don't want to pull my daughter out of public school to enroll her in a private pandemic pod, which would put our school's funding at risk. I know these learning pods are important to many people and I totally get the appeal. But for myself, I want to try to work with my school community to solve this enormous problem as best we can.
Again, in our case, we're lucky to have a dedicated school community of parents, administrators, teachers and staff. I know not everyone is so fortunate, and I'm grateful.
Reason 4: My sister is a teacher.
My final reason for sending my daughter back to in-person school is a deeply personal one. My sister teaches Special Education at a middle school in an underserved community, in a state where new cases are rising every day and where school leaders and local officials have not been consistent about communicating with teachers or parents. Her school faces all the same funding and resourcing problems as mine—and more. And she's going back. She felt that not going back would have meant abandoning her students and leaving her co-teachers short-handed.
I'm scared for her. Her situation is so different from ours. She faces all the risks we as a country should have been working nonstop all spring and summer to fight, with all of our strength.
Poor leadership, entrenched inequality and a baffling lack of support for basic public health regulations have all combined to put way, way too many teachers and kids in serious danger of getting sick when school reopens. My sister is one of them. My daughter is not.
I've known for a long time that my sister is an incredible person—a talented and committed educator, a dedicated citizen, a giver. I never really realized before now, though, how brave she is. We've asked teachers to be brave this year in ways that I don't think we should be able to forgive ourselves for, as a country. We should have done better to protect them. In more parts of the country, we should have shut down non-essential services for adults so that kids and teachers could face fewer risks. But we didn't. And now it's come down to this—a menu of terrible choices, for way too many parents, and unfair risks for way too many teachers and schools.
I'm sending my daughter to in-person school because I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm a parent without high-risk family members, at a well-prepared school, in a city that fought hard against coronavirus and is winning (right now).
There should be a lot more people who are as lucky as I am. A lot more.