Opinion: Care about equity? Open the schools!

With safe, effective vaccines in place, there should be no question about a full-scale return to regular schooling, argues Arthur Samuels, Co-Executive Director of MESA Charter High School in Brooklyn.

Opinion: Care about equity?  Open the schools!
Photo by NeONBRAND / Unsplash

Arthur Samuels is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of MESA Charter High School in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter at @arthur_samuels

On the night of July 20, the self-described “progressive” UFT Solidarity Caucus posted the following on Twitter: “We are collecting stories from educators about why they are concerned about returning to [face-to-face] teaching and learning in Sept. We are hoping to look for patterns/commonalities to pursue legal action.”

The fear-mongering continued the following week, despite Mayor De Blasio’s vaccination-or-testing mandate, with some teachers telling the AM News, “I don’t know if it’s enough” and that “there needs to be a remote option planned for now.” On July 28, American Federation of Teachers president told Chuck Todd that the union would “try” to open schools, which observers noted was an “ominous” backtrack from her earlier commitment.

Like a Mets bullpen implosion, we knew this would be coming and we knew it would be disastrous. Now, it has arrived.

Are we really doing this? Even with the Delta variant, the threat is not nearly what it once was. Per city data, on April 19, there were 2400 cases of COVID; on July 18, two days before the survey was published, there were 613. More importantly, during that same timespan, the number of COVID hospitalizations dropped from 188 to 25. This decrease, of course, is because 65% of our adults are fully vaccinated as are nearly 72% of adults over 65 - the most at-risk population. New Yorkers understand that we are the beneficiaries of a modern-day scientific miracle.

This is important, because it’s pretty clear that COVID is more likely to be endemic, like the flu, than eradicated, like Smallpox. We also know from international and local data that schools can be reopened safely. Indeed, they were re-opened before the vaccine. With safe, effective vaccines in place, there should be no question about a full-scale return to regular schooling. The CDC guidance on this is crystal clear: “Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.”

This guidance makes sense: the negative impact of school closures on the mental health of adolescents has been well-documented. Childhood obesity rates increased, particularly among Black and Hispanic youth, as well as those on public insurance or in the lower-income brackets.  

Student learning has also suffered during the pandemic, with the most vulnerable students - lower-income students and those whose native language is not English - the most adversely impacted. The Times recently reported that students attending predominantly Black and Hispanic schools were six months behind where they would normally be in math, and students attending schools where the average household income was less than $25,000 annually were seven months behind.

You would think that so-called “progressives” would want to take steps to remediate this inequity, especially now that it is safe to do so. Instead, they are doubling down on school closure; to add insult to injury, they’re using student safety as a fig leaf for their efforts. I’m not sure whom this caucus is in “solidarity” with, but it sure isn’t our most vulnerable kids.

The charter school I co-founded was fully remote last year. Students, staff, and families worked harder than ever, but we all knew it just wasn’t the same. Thanks to funding from the federal government, we are able to re-open safely and in person this school year. Every parent, teacher, and student I have spoken to is incredibly eager to return.

NYC Schools are getting a Shaquille O’Neal-sized bag of money from Washington to reopen safely and combat learning loss.  It’s enough to put an air purifier in each classroom, purchase masks for everyone, and still buy metric tons of Clorox wipes for people who still want to disinfect their groceries. And let us not forget, school staff have been eligible for the vaccine since January.

But despite these resources, right now the DOE is still sticking to outdated measures, like requiring podding and closing classrooms for ten days if there is even one positive case. This flies in the face of CDC guidance which specifically does not consider people close contacts in the K-12 setting if they are either vaccinated or are using masking, ventilation, and distancing where possible. Making outdated concessions to the anti-science, pro-fear crowd will ultimately exacerbate even further the suffering of our most vulnerable.

Of course, there are some families who truly do need and want a remote option, and they deserve a high-quality one. One of the most humbling aspects of being a school leader is that you learn very quickly what you are good at and what you are not good at. It’s safe to say that over the past eighteen months, New York City Schools (including my own public charter) have learned that we are bad at remote instruction. Fortunately, other places do this well, and the beauty of online learning is that it’s not bound by geography. Surely those union members vociferously advocating for a remote option wouldn’t mind the funding dollars for those students to flow to a non-union online program if it keeps kids safe and educated.

If the Solidarity Caucus and its ilk have their way, not only will they perpetuate harm to young people, they may irrevocably damage public education in New York City.

Last year, over 43,000 students (and possibly many more) left New York City schools, and kindergarten applications dropped by 12%. With private schools, parochial schools, and free public charters operating in person, and our neighbors across the Hudson River doing the same, does anyone really expect New York City parents to endure another year of school closures, fear-mongering, and chaos? By the time the Solidarity Caucus is ready to come back to work, there won’t be any students left to teach.

Fortunately, many UFT members have spoken out against this nonsense (in the department of “the least you can do,” even Weingarten disavowed it) and are eager to get back into the classroom. Let’s hope Mayor de Blasio and his likely successor, Borough President Adams, ignore this fringe. If these teachers really don’t want to go back to the classroom, they can always resign. It is, after all, a free country.

Arthur Samuels is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of MESA Charter High School in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter at @arthur_samuels