School during covid (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
For years we’ve heard from the mayor and his schools chancellors that our Department of Education is all about “equity and excellence.” Lofty goals, lofty promises, and grand announcements of progress have followed, giving the impression that we are much further along than we really are. You may not share the DOE’s faith in utopia, but my school, Francis Lewis High School, is located right on Utopia Parkway in Queens.
This notwithstanding, I’m not persuaded. Next school year, after our awful pandemic year, we’re returning to full, in-person education. From a pure work perspective, I’m thrilled. I don’t ever want to teach online again. I’ve had it with teaching five or ten kids and twenty or thirty cat pictures, representing students who are sleeping, playing video games, or doing any number of things they wouldn’t attempt in my live classroom.
I’m not afraid to go back, and I can’t wait to do my real job again. Of course, I’m vaccinated, and for now, I believe that affords me sufficient protection against covid. Are my students vaccinated? I hope so, but who knows? Maybe their parents don’t believe in it. Maybe they don’t want to place needles in their arms. Maybe they heard someone on TV say not to get it. Barring genuine medical reasons, the city needs to mandate vaccines not only for us teachers and staff, but also for all eligible students. That’s simple.
Less simple is the fact that no students under 12 are vaccinated, as they are not yet eligible. While my union was able to put safeguards in place that kept people safe, for the most part, last school year, will they work with full classes and schools? Even if they do, what if students decide not to wear masks? Last year they were placed in remote instruction, but since there isn’t any this year, will there be consequences? Mayor de Blasio doesn’t seem to find that important enough to comment, but masks are vital. Students who can wear them but won’t need to have alternate placement.
Another level of protection has been social distancing. Last year, the standard was six feet. This year, it’s down to three. Depending on when and whom you ask, there are 50, 200, or 10% of all city schools that cannot maintain three feet of social distance with their full student bodies in school. I can tell you with absolute certainty, regardless of which figure is correct, that our school is among them.
Passing between classes at Francis Lewis High School ought to be an Olympic sport. You’d be lucky to have three inches of social distancing. More likely you’ll be carried by a wave of moving people, hopefully in the right direction. I’ve often found it impossible to get into a room and had to resort to u-turns in our crowded hallways.
The city once said it would find accommodations for overcrowded schools like ours. They sat with the UFT and discussed what they could do. What they did for us was absolutely nothing, and evidently that’s what they are planning to do for, at the very least, 49 other schools too. How does allowing social distancing in some schools, but not others, represent equity?
Of course it doesn’t represent equity at all. For the New York City Department of Education, equity is a thing to be dispensed at their discretion. When it comes to addressing the rampant overcrowding they’ve ignored for nearly eight years under this mayor, it’s no equity for you. DOE policy is everyone shove in and hope for the best. The answer for September is to put a smile on your face and try to forget the new Delta variant is even more contagious and deadly than the version of COVID-19 that brought our city to its knees. Navigate your overcrowded hallways and classrooms as best you can, the city is telling us, and good luck.
This is unconscionable by any standard. There are few entities more maddening and incompetent than New York City’s Department of Education, but it’s still on the mayor and DOE officials to find adequate space for our city’s students. They don’t deserve a pass here, and we cannot allow them to happily march tens of thousands of students and teachers into the Delta variant.
This is an emergency for all, not just for those in schools with insufficient space. The hypocrisy and indifference here is staggering. It’s imperative that the city find sufficient space not only for our students, but for all students. Like every other step of dealing with the pandemic and schools, the de Blasio administration is already well behind, but it must start now and make sure that the overcrowded schools they’ve ignored for so long don’t become death traps.
Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher at Francis Lewis High School, and a UFT executive committee member. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.