Mayor de Blasio at school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
I’m writing this on June 25—the last day of the 2020-2021 school year.
And while we know next school year will start on September 13, there's so much we still don't know.
There are some factors—vaccination rate, CDC guidelines—that are holding up some of the details, but the lack of a clear plan and clear communication from Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Department of Education now promises some amount of chaos two months from now. And for those of us who remember the chaotic August of 2020, that brings back nightmares.
We know the city is promising a return to five-day-a-week in-person schooling—yet many parents still ask, "Is that real?" Because we've seen how quickly the city and DOE have changed their minds before. Last year, the start of school was pushed back multiple times. Opt-in periods for remote students changed several times. School closure guidelines were in flux. The promises of remote options for next year for the families not yet confident about in-person schooling were reversed suddenly. And in all of these cases, principals and educators learned the news at the same time as parents and the public—often via Twitter or at the mayor’s press briefing.
Since February, many of us have been sounding the alarm: A pledge is not a plan—and if we got to the end of this school year without a clear plan for the fall, informed by diverse stakeholders and backed by sufficient resources, it would mean trouble, and an inequitable fall reopening. Schools with more resources, parents who can raise funds, and greater digital literacy and linguistic access among their communities will be more confident about their return. And schools that are under-resourced and overcrowded—often serving communities of color—will be left wondering how the new school year is safe, resourced, and better than a return to pre-pandemic "normalcy" that already wasn't serving many students.
Many parents don't know what time their kids' school days will start or end (it was within 24 hours before the end of the school year that we learned the school day would restore the hour that was cut from it this year). Many parents have been raising alarms about whether schools will have after-school programs and many after-school providers have been waiting on clarity about excessive fees that spiked during the pandemic—decisions that could have been made while parents and administrators were all still in the school year together, before summer break disrupted the ability to communicate and collaborate around such issues.
Principals don't know how many students they can have in a classroom, so teachers don't know how many students they'll be teaching—so they leave for their well-deserved vacation with the nagging thought that they’ll be racing to prep new classes in the days before schools reopen. And principals aren't sure if they'll need more classrooms than they have which means any efforts to find more usable space will be hectic and uneven in September.
The city has pledged to hire social workers for every school—will they fulfill that in time? What is the ratio of social workers to students, or is it social workers per school? How about nurses and guidance counselors?
Thanks to the federal and state governments, the city has unprecedented funds—but hasn't been clear how it will use them to reduce class sizes, increase small cohort learning, or fulfill IEPs and other individual teacher-student opportunities.
I get that mask mandates (which should go away, in my opinion but we should defer to public health experts) and status of mandatory vaccinations for teachers and students (which should be in-line with other vaccination requirements as soon as we are beyond "emergency authorization") will be based on guidance the state and city do not yet have.
But right now, we're all left guessing on those pieces and many more. And when we're not given a clear vision from the city, schools and parent communities with resources form their own vision, and others are often left waiting and uncertain. Some families who could afford to leave the city may stay away; others who chose parochial schools will remain out of the public school system; many others may simply choose not to send their kids back until it’s clearer what their schools look like, causing low attendance as schools reopen in September
We've lived this story before: A summer of uncertainty, guesswork, rumors, changing reports. This spring—when parents and guardians regularly received paper updates in kids' backpacks and more folks might be able to attend meetings with teachers and administrators—would have been a good time to hear parents' concerns and address them.
Instead, it will be another summer of uncertainty, where we hope for the best, but prepare for chaos, to the extent that’s possible.
City leaders know there's no real reopening of our city without schools being back in action—safely, equitably, with real resources and with schedules that work for students, teachers, and parents.
The time to pull those stakeholders together was these past few months. Now as teachers and students head into summer, principals will work overtime, teachers won't know what to prep, parents will keep guessing and gossipping...and students will be at risk of going into a third consecutive school year where nothing is routine.
As a child development specialist said to me, the best thing parents can do this summer is find something their kids care about and help them learn it -- whether it's a craft or memorizing baseball statistics. Don't worry about "learning loss" or summer worksheets. Help them remember they can learn and can love to learn.
That's what I want to be focused on this summer—but somehow it seems clear many of us will spend part of our summer breaks working with principals and teachers to try to make sense of class sizes, funding questions, school hours, IEPs, after-school programming, and so much more before the fall.
Justin Krebs is a parent of three elementary school students in Brooklyn and a parent leader at his own school and in the community school district Presidents Council. These perspectives are his own and do not represent the Parents Association or Presidents Council. On Twitter @justinmkrebs.