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This week marked the first day of school in New York City, the country’s largest school district. Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference last week to showcase air purifiers, piles of children’s surgical masks and electrostatic sprayers. The message? “I say to all parents … the best place for your child is at school.”
Natalia Murakhver agrees. She is the mother of a 7-year-old entering second grade and an 11-year-old daughter entering college on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She led a group of parents who sued the district last spring to open full-time schools. “I think the mayor does a great job and really tries to stress the importance and safety of face-to-face training,” she says, “which we’ve known for a long, long time.”
Farah Despeignes, who has two sons in college, disagrees: “Parents all over town think the remote option is best for them.” She is president of the Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group, and she says parents in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan are organizing protests, discussing school boycots and even lawsuits because they want to keep their children at bay. .
She says these parents have lost faith in the city’s education department, or DOE. “They don’t trust the DOE. They don’t believe they’ll do what it says it’s going to do, because they know from decades of experience that the DOE has never done well for them. and their children. ”
Earlier this summer, schools across the country were considering a return to near-normal operations. COVID-19 cases were on the decline, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had relaxed distancing requirements for schools, and 12-year-olds were receiving vaccines. There has even been talk of vaccinated teachers and students removing masks.
A wave of distance learning options
Then came the highly infectious delta strain, combined with easing restrictions across the country. Cases have increased among unvaccinated people, including children.
Now, for the third consecutive school year, schools are changing their short-term plans – and they inevitably leave some parents unhappy. Polls suggest the vast majority of parents nationwide want their kids to come back in person. Parents of color are more likely to be hesitant.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education has followed the plans of 100 of the nation’s largest and most important school districts, which together educate about 1 in 5 students nationwide. They found the following changes in July and August:
- A sharp increase in mask mandates – 75 of those 100 districts now need them for all.
- Vaccination mandates are also increasing. Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Portland and Seattle now require all school staff to be vaccinated without an alternative test. And Los Angeles and Culver City, Calif., Require all students over 12 to be vaccinated.
- The number of districts offering distance learning has doubled in a few weeks. Now 92 out of 100 districts have such a plan; 56 of the districts offer distance learning to all who want it.
Like last year, New York City has become an outlier among major city school districts for its focus on in-person schooling. Distance learning will only be accessible to a relatively small number of students deemed “medically fragile” due to serious conditions, such as cystic fibrosis or leukemia. “Our medically necessary education program will provide immunosuppressed students with a high quality education and support from caring adults,” Sarah Casasnovas of the Department of Education told NPR.
Selena Carrión, who lives in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, has a daughter, Aurora, who is entering kindergarten. Aurora had a liver transplant when she was about a year old. Carrión tried to label her medically fragile for home schooling, but the process, she says, has been opaque. This is true even though Carrión herself taught at her daughter’s school.
Although Carrión wishes her daughter could be with other students in person, she doesn’t believe the school building will be safe for her. They have mobile classrooms and overcrowding. The cafeteria is in the basement, which limits the possibilities of ventilation while the children are eating. And, “even last year with only a few people in person, we were constantly closed for outbreaks and staff had to constantly self-quarantine throughout the school year.”
As this troubled third school year begins, parents are worried, confused, tired and disgusted. And the two sides seem further apart than ever in their views.