Remote schooling has been a challenge for every parent during this pandemic. For a lucky few who have the luxury of not working or are able to work from home, school closures have been an added stress, but a manageable one. For others parents in need of the income but working for companies that reject the notion of working from home, remote schooling has been a near impossibility.
Still, parents have made it work, mainly because they had no choice. In September, seventeen of the twenty biggest school districts in the US—Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, to name just a few—were only offering remote learning. But the largest district of them all, New York City, was an outlier. The district offered students hybrid, in-person schooling almost from the start, with a promise that parents who chose remote learning could opt back in to in-person learning every semester. The move to reopen school doors was largely born out of a desire to do right by all students, especially vulnerable children who use schools as sanctuaries from troubles at home and those who are unable to access classes online.
But now New York City is changing its policy and parents are being forced to make an almost impossible choice: opt in to in-person learning before November 15— while new infections are skyrocketing and the pandemic surges across the country—or keep students at home for the next eight months, until the end of the school year in June.
This is a cruel move for parents who hoped to keep their children home over the winter months—when Covid infections were widely expected to rise—but return them to school in spring when classroom windows could be opened, kids could play or study outdoors, and infection rates would hopefully dip again, as they did over this summer.
While few studies today show schools as a source of new outbreaks in the United States, that is likely due to the fact that most schools are operating remote-only or with a very limited number of students learning in-person. We do know, from a number of studies, that children are just as infectious—if not more infectious—than adults. Indeed, the first ever large scale study using contact tracing data shows us that no age group that is protected from becoming infected by SARS-CoV-2 or spreading the virus. Children spread the virus to other children, and students spread the virus to other students.
Studies have also shown us the devastating impact of keeping kids at home and what another eight months of remote schooling may mean for the wellbeing of families. When parents can no longer send their children to school, problems otherwise unrelated to the disease arise, affecting everything from household income and employment to emotional and mental wellbeing. The majority of parents, many of whom had to quit their jobs or cut back on hours, are already burnt out from juggling competing demands of work, life, and remote learning. The harm to children is also widely recorded, especially the toll on mental health.
A survey by the NYC Department of Education in the summer suggested that parents of at least half of the 1.1 million students in New York’s school system wanted to return for in-person learning in the fall. In the end, only around 238,000 students showed up. The lack of students isn’t a reflection of a lack of desire to return to school. Instead, I believe it has more to do with the fear many parents must have around the path the pandemic is now taking in the US, with new daily infections reaching all-time highs. The path of the pandemic will be nor more clear by November 15. Forcing parents into a final choice on in-person schooling by that arbitrary date is an irresponsible and potentially dangerous mistake.