The Good Stuff
by Nathan Thornburgh
Last Thursday was the Night of the Zoom calls. All the NYC public schools in our orbit—both the one we’re leaving behind and the two my kids are starting fresh in the Fall—scheduled all-school Zoom calls to talk about their plans for reopening. The calls looked the same, at times a collage of worried staffers, at times a slightly puffy-eyed principal, at times various slides from the hastily assembled presentations. The Zooms all followed the same narrative arc, describing in careful but compassionate terms the various challenges of the past months, the struggle to put together a comprehensive plan in New York. The Department of Education did not get a lot of love. They had rejected, it seemed, many schools’ individual plans at the last minute, giving them only one option: adapt the Department’s one-size-fits-all model, and quickly.
That model calls for parents to make a decision between all-remote or a blended school week that includes one or two days of in-person schooling. It’s a big enough decision to weigh. We’ve barely left the apartment in months, except for my wife’s work. It’s hard to imagine the kids getting on a subway, even a day or two a week. But man, everyone misses school and friends and life in general.
It’s enough of a conundrum that our governor refused to say if he would feel comfortable sending his kids to school in New York City. This week he called it a “risky proposition no matter what”. Gloomy, yes, but at least it was a sign of a return to normalcy in New York politics, which for years has mostly involved the governor appearing on television to trash the mayor and his plans.
And there’s plenty to trash, if you’re so inclined. The heavy-handedness of the Department of Education is less than reassuring in a moment where New York City is the only big city school district that is even contemplating a blended reopening. The NY public schools have been trying to charm well-heeled families into staying in the system for years, not necessarily by improving access and outcomes for all, but by creating specialized schools with special emphases and resources to appeal to professionals and higher net worth families. But now that bet seems to be faltering. Many of those families seem (anecdotally at least) to be fleeing the city anyhow, and the top-down approach to all schools, big and boutique alike, is going to set back the idea of campus autonomy for years to come.
Those are the kinds of thoughts that run through your mind in the 70th minute of an all-school Zoom call.
It doesn’t matter if I’m distracted. We had heard enough to stick to our original response: we’re choosing blended for both our seventh-grader and our ninth-grader. The numbers look good in New York still, less than 1% positive test rate. Safest big city in America, for what that’s worth these days.
The thing is, our decision probably doesn’t even matter. My wife has a feeling that this is all a dress rehearsal, and I tend to agree. School isn’t going to start, not even by September 10. And if it does, it’s going to shut down as quickly as it opened. It will only take one positive test to send most of my son’s seventh grade teachers into quarantine. As it is, every single teacher from the 11th grade at his school—and most of them from the 8th grade—have already been granted permission to only teach remotely for medical reasons. That raises the scenario that students will be trekking across the five boroughs to sit in a classroom taught by Max Headroom or some similar talking head on a screen.
So it’s all hanging by a thread, this ambitious plan to re-open the schools and take in the 1.1 million students served. And there is no redemption to be found in these circumstances of pandemic and uncertainty, especially after so much loss in the five boroughs this year. But even on a Zoom call I need to find some silver lining, and I found it in the parent questions that kept pouring in. They were all over the place—smart, frantic, calm, anxious—but they were all engaged. Parents are showing up for this. They’re listening, they’re taking stock and making decisions, fighting hard for the specifics of their child’s education and well-being. Let’s remember that energy, and keep it with us even after the pandemic and the era of COVID Zoom calls is over. It’s the good stuff.