Opinion: Schools are Overdue an Equitable Recovery

Opinion: Schools are Overdue an Equitable Recovery
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

By Shahana Hanif, a lifelong public school student and candidate for City Council in District 39 (Kensington, Borough Park, Windsor Terrace, Park Slope, Gowanus,  Columbia Waterfront, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill), and parents and education advocates Nicole Hunt, Tajh Sutton, and Lisa Jackson Zelznick.

As the Department of Education navigates hybrid learning and politicians debate the merits of remote versus in-person learning, school buildings are reopening and a clear plan is needed for full-time, in-person learning.  As schools reopen to more in-person students and teachers, we need city leadership capable of implementing a recovery plan for all our students, teachers, parents, and staff rooted in care, equity, and justice.  We are calling on the next City Council to not just ask “how can schools reopen safely” but also “how can schools recover equitably?” We want students to attend school in person, but plans merely calling for reopening without also critically examining how to resolve the inequities at play is harmful. Teachers have long suggested prioritized reopening, but bureaucratic, top-down Department of Education decision making has overshadowed and excluded community input; as the next Council Member, I will prioritize community voices: we need more teachers, parents, administrators, and students at the table to inform City policies.

Our city has failed students with disabilities, who throughout the pandemic have faced higher rates of food insecurity and major depressive disorders. Our city has failed the 114,000 students in the public school system experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity who need in-person school for life-saving social services like lunch. Instead, our city has cut funding to community and beacon schools like PS 179 in my district, which provide crucial resources to the entire community. Our city has failed students who speak English as a second language by refusing to prioritize multilingual parent outreach, despite most multilingual students being full-time remote learners. Hybrid and remote learning has been a lesson in inequality: from our City failing to provide broadband for all and bridge the digital divide, to the Department of Education refusing to communicate critical information in languages other than English.

The most meaningful way the City Council can begin to shape an equitable school recovery is by fully funding our schools. After decades of education activists and policymakers fighting for more equitable funding for New York public schools, our City has finally received an influx of funds from the State. But the fight is not over. Budget justice means ensuring this money goes directly to our schools so they can support students by reducing class sizes, instead of hiring out-of-state consultants. In addition to smaller class sizes, the funding should go towards support and professional development for staff, proper ventilation and HVAC air filtration systems in classrooms, and guidance counselors to support our students, particularly as rates of anxiety and depression skyrocket.

Transparency with the Department of Education

Finally, the City Council must have a stronger role in our city’s education infrastructure. This begins with increased oversight of the Department of Education (DOE) including the Mayor’s pick for Chancellors and increased checks and balances over Mayoral Control. There also must be stronger lines of communication between teachers, administration, families, and the DOE. How can we trust that the DOE is planning school reopening and recovery with Black and brown children in mind? Families must be given more information. The DOE needs to do more outreach to families in shelters and families that speak languages other than English. Adequate translation services, ethnic media, radio, and hardcopy mail announcements are the bare minimum.

As we reopen schools, we cannot return to normal. In one of the most segregated public school systems in the country, reopening must be used as an opportunity to address systemic inequities.