NYC High Schools are Reopening— and Not Everyone is Happy About It

Some argue that a return to the classroom is still too risky and complicated

Not all parents are impressed by the city’s announcement about public high schools reopening for in-person classes.

Connie Attanasio should be thrilled that Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that high schools in the city will begin in-person learning again on March 22, since she wants normalcy for her son, Patrick. But she has her reservations about what that announcement really means. 

Patrick, a sophomore at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, has been attending class online for the last several months. He was originally utilizing the school’s hybrid model when it was offered months ago, where he was able to attend class in person once a week. But Attanasio said teachers were instructing on the Zoom screens still, with other teachers or moderators merely overseeing the class, and it wasn’t worth the exposure. She’s worried the city’s latest plan is offering more of the same.

Attanasio said the city needs to come up with a new instruction model that would allow in-person students to be in school full time, as opposed to the hybrid model her son experienced, where he was simply on Zoom in the school building.

“He was just sitting in a room doing his Zoom classes with the teacher sitting in the room saying nothing to them,” Attanasio said. “What? I’m going to send my kid to school on the bus for one day a week to expose himself for this.”

Reopening the largest school system in the country is the first major task for Meisha Porter, the city’s new schools chancellor. What’s ahead will be challenging for her and for students and their parents. Not everyone is happy about the new arrangement. Some parents welcomed the news and are eager to send their kids back to school, while others, like Hernan Pavon, would rather they continue learning online. New Yorkers on either side of the issue say the city should re-examine its plan. 

Pavon said he doesn’t want to put his daughter Brianna’s life at risk, so the high school freshman will continue learning online.

“Other parents say, ‘I want my kid to be out there, I don’t want them to lose their youth. I don’t want them to lose those times that don’t come back,’” Pavon said. “I completely understand that. But at the same time… you don’t want to lose your kid at all.”

Pavon, whose daughter is in her first year at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, said he’s disappointed in the city’s decision. And while he supports the idea of outdoor sports as an extracurricular activity that allows kids to socialize, he thinks holding in-person classes is a different story– and something the city shouldn’t try just yet.

The Departments of Health and Education, said Pavon, who owns a medical care consulting business, “have not done their due diligence on how to go about setting things up” and should work on a plan for the fall, rather than reopening before the end of the current school year.

But Natalya Murakhver, a parent with two daughters in elementary school, sees the other side of the issue. In her view, the city’s got no time to lose, pointing to the city’s three recent student suicides. Murakhver, whose daughters became depressed because of their elementary school’s hybrid learning model, founded the NYC Kids Belong in School fund and the Keep NYC Schools Open organization— both of which are efforts to fully reopen the city’s schools for in-person learning. 

Murakhver said the announcement about reopening isn’t what it sounds like. She said the city is instituting the same setup it had in November, where most students still don’t get to attend their classes full time with live instruction. Every New York City school, Murakhver said, should be in person, full time with “a real teacher, not a babysitter and a teacher on a screen.”

“Every other essential worker is on the job,” Murakhver said. “But the teachers get the privilege of staying home remote.”

Murakhver said the city also needs to revise its rule that schools shut down every time they have two unrelated cases of COVID-19. 

“The transmission rate in schools is so low that there really is no reason for shutdowns,” Murakhver said. “We need to be looking for ways to keep schools open, not for reasons to shut them down.”

There’s currently a total of 118 active cases of the coronavirus among students and staff of New York City public schools.

George Lanese, co-founder of About U, a community service organization that provides academic and sports instruction to high school students, said New York City’s high schools are “not really reopening.”  The mayor also announced that high school sports would resume in April.  But Lanese said the announcement is an example of the city’s inadequate planning since, with such little notice, many high school athletes won’t be able to get their state-required physicals completed in time to play. 

He said the city should mimic how some Catholic schools have been learning in person five days a week during the pandemic.

“You don’t need to recreate the wheel right now,” Lanese said. “Those people have done it, you tailor it towards the public school system.” And the public school parents and players need to be involved in making the in-person school and sports safety plans, Lanese said, instead of leaving it up to public officials.

“There’s no urgency right now,” Lanese said. “The kids actually are the ones that sacrificed the most during this and were the least affected by it healthwise.”

Meanwhile, Attanasio said she’ll send her son, Patrick, to private school next year if the city doesn’t restructure the in-person system.

“This has already been a year and a half of waste of no education,” Attonasio said.  Patrick, she said, needs the structure of full-time, in-person learning, as he’s not doing well in his classes. 

Patrick admits that his mother has a point.  He said he’s simply not learning anything from online instruction. “It kind of sucks,” he said. “In real school, there’s a teacher in front of you, you can raise your hand and ask for help. If you need it, they’re actually explaining it to you. I’m starting to see how much I was really taking for granted back then.”

“I just need to be put back into a classroom,” he added. 

“We’re completely losing our education, most of our friends, most of the fun times we had in school,” Patrick said. “I just want everyone to see it from the students’ perspective.”

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