By Justin Krebs
A 9-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. Small groups of kids working together consistently. Loads of outside time. Taking advantage of a city beyond school walls. A reduction in standardized testing. Enough flexibility to allow different families to work with different schedules.
If I heard those features, I’d imagine I was learning about some idealized school system that was light years away from the New York City system in which my three children attend elementary school.
Yet, these are in fact the qualities currently under discussion for the 2020-2021 school year in New York—and parents, guardians, teachers, administrators, and employers around the city are terrified. And rightly so.
Those benefits come at a high cost—a greatly reduced school schedule that will leave parents unable to work while harried at home, an uneven educational approach that will hit the struggling students hardest, an over-reliance on hit-or-miss remote education, and an elaborate and potentially invasive security apparatus to try to keep our kids and teachers “safe” at school. In short, an experience that looks very unlike the school my three children have come to love and the school community that’s been an integrally interwoven part of my daily life.
Right now, parents are frustrated by the status quo, skeptical of local leadership, and absolutely uncertain about what the fall, and beyond, will hold. I won’t pretend that it would be easy to run the city or the school system right now—but even amidst the health and economic crises we’re facing, we need to demand that our state, city, and school leaders embrace a big, bold, and ambitious approach to prioritizing our schools—for the sake of our kids, our families, our teachers and school staff, our economy, and our future.
Our schools are the heart of our communities. At their best, they are a democratizing force across our heartbreakingly unequal city. They can be a source of joy and friendship, for the children and their parents and caregivers. My kids love their teachers and classmates—they don’t love Google Classroom and Google Meet.
We need a real plan—one that is ferociously inventive, astoundingly creative, and given the focus, commitment, and resources that a challenge of this magnitude deserves.
Are the best minds of our government, civic entities, and private institutions working together, daily, constantly, to tackle this? Are we hearing regular updates from empowered task forces sharing the latest public health science to keep kids, teachers, and staff safe, the best-in-class models of remote learning, the newly envisioned labor force of para-professionals to support teachers and provide supplementary enrichment, or fresh and innovative ways to annex empty real estate and public spaces to transform into extension classrooms?
Nope. We’re not. Instead, we’re hearing vague guidelines, conflicting information, and uncertain rumors. And I’m not talking about the absurdities from the White House, which should be the loudest voice demanding we fully fund the massive operation to make our schools safe, equip our teachers and support our families, but which is avoiding all responsibility.
I’m talking about the leaders closer to home from whom we desperately need a plan. Of course, it needs to ensure the safety of students, teachers, staff, and families before we can reopen—but it needs to do far more than that. And it can’t simply be a checklist to create the bare minimum—it needs to be an inspired plan that taps into the brains, grit, and heart of New Yorkers to create an excellent experience for our children, and a way forward that supports our whole city.
Any real plan needs to start with bold leadership and utter transparency. A plan needs to center on equity in its respect for families’ differences—families with different situations in regards to siblings, IEPs, technological needs, health concerns, levels of food security, and work schedules. A plan needs to lean into small group classes as a strength; run away from standardized testing as a metric of learning; and fight like hell for in-school counseling, mental health support, social-emotional learning, art, music, and other enrichments. A plan needs to protect our privacy—and give families, not corporations, control over our data.
And any real plan needs to recognize that this isn’t just a school problem. Businesses can’t rely on employees being present and productive until there’s a plan for schools. Families can’t commit to work, to caring for other children or elderly relatives until there’s a plan for schools. That means the city and state need to dig deep for resources and partnerships to protect the rights of workers to care for families, extend childcare support, and give businesses sensible avenues to show solidarity with their workers.
These are the demands in a recent letter and petition put forth by local parent leaders in my Brooklyn neighborhood—a call to civic leaders to make schools a real priority and, in doing so, to empower parents to be part of the solution, not just worried spectators.
Is that a big lift? Sure it is. It was also a big lift to roll out universal pre-K, which was done successfully just a few years ago. It was also a huge push to bring down the horrific infection and death toll of COVID-19, which we have, as a city, tackled together over recent months. This is a city of the most creative, diverse, and innovative population—a city that can absolutely mobilize to educate our children, support our families, bolster our economy, invest in our future: and do all of this safely.
But we can’t do this on our own. We can’t expect principals to figure it out. And while we want the community efforts of our tirelessly generous neighbors and local organizations to play a critical role, that could, even at best, lead to uneven results that will benefit some schools and leave others out.
We can do this with optimism, New York grit, and a commitment to reach every school and support every family. With real leadership mobilizing us, we can make 2020-2021 a year that not only we survive, but in which our schoolchildren—with small classes, empowered teachers, supportive communities, no standardized testing, and glorious innovation— thrive.
Justin Krebs is a parent at PS 39 in Brooklyn and a leader of the District 15 Presidents Council. He is the director of national campaigns at MoveOn, and a candidate for City Council in the 39th district. Connect with him on Twitter at @justinmkrebs