Since last fall my youngest son has been ready to go to school just like his big brother. Even before he turned three he was working on his self-portrait. He’s been practicing writing his name. And it breaks my heart every day when he says, “I’m going to pre-K soon.” I see the excitement and thrill of whatever he thinks school will be. Part of me wishes I could shape his environment into some façade of the pre-COVID world we knew where people gathered in rooms together to have the kind of spontaneous deeper conversations you can only have in person. I want him and his friends to feel safe to give each other a high-five or even a hug.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I explained to our oldest child, a rising 3rd grader, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “blended learning” plan had two options for part-time, in-person, or full-time remote learning. He asked for the remote learning option without hesitation. I asked him why, entirely expecting something like, “I just want to wear pajamas and play Minecraft all day,” or maybe even, “I hate school,” which after spending this past Spring with me as an inexperienced, uncredentialed stand-in teacher holding down another job and looking after another younger child at the same time, I would totally understand. Instead, he flatly replied, “Because I don’t want to get Coronavirus.”
The New York City Department of Education (DOE) is the only major urban school district out of the five largest that is doubling down to reopen school buildings. At a time when all New Yorkers are forbidden to eat indoors, sit inside a movie theater or go to a museum, Mayor de Blasio’s administration has made a decision to throw nearly a million households into high risk for COVID-19 infection. The plans are still being worked out, and the details under consideration are mind-boggling. Desks are to be separated with plexiglass partitions and other barriers to keep kids apart. No materials sharing. Bathroom breaks will be limited and monitored. No team projects. No reading buddies. No lunch breaks. Students will sit the entire day in one room, six feet apart from each other.
While the DOE is mandating all of the necessary safety protocols, it is not providing schools with the resources to implement them. Schools will have to hire more teachers for blended learning. Many of the school buildings are over 100 years old, and the windows do not open to provide proper ventilation. The United Federation of Teachers is currently monitoring delivery of PPE to each school, because there is no assurance the DOE has sufficient resources for a full year’s supply. Teachers accustomed to subsidizing the DOE by buying pencils and paper towels are launching GoFundMe and DonorsChoose fundraisers for N95 masks, sanitizing supplies and other PPE. Teachers will no doubt be the ones tasked with enforcing social distancing, and performing the extra cleaning, and now teaching two sets of students—in-person and remote—on the same salary as before. Only those with severe medical conditions can apply for remote teaching. Even asthma, a chronic respiratory pre-condition, is not necessarily enough of a medical condition to qualify. This summer, instead of focusing on sharing skills and best practices for engaging and creative remote learning, our public school teachers are writing their wills because Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo are digging their graves.
Teachers are not alone in facing impossible demands of them. The purpose behind reopening schools is to send parents back to work and keep the economy going for our bosses. Yet there is no plan for safe public transit, there will only be 5 ½ hours of instruction each school day, and no on-site aftercare available. Schools will select from the options provided by DOE to split students into two or three different groups and stagger attendance over one partial day and one or two “full” days, and the days change from week to week. The rest of the time students will be at home learning. So if we choose to send our children in order to go to work, both at great personal risk, we only have childcare for 5 ½ hours on 2 to 3 alternating days a week, and for those days from 2pm on, we still have to find alternative childcare.
First of all, do you know anyone who can squeeze their work schedule into 2 to 3 alternating half days? Especially any single parents who can? Because I don’t. A friend who is both a public school teacher and public school parent tells me, “I am sick of playing a real-life version of Hunger Games.” Of course, we, parents, are experts at figuring out how to piece together convoluted scheduling and arrangements that work for us. I am sick of being told to just accept the bad conditions laid out for us. I refuse to get our lives back to the “normal” that has brought us to where we are today.
My family lives in Sunset Park, a rapidly gentrifying Latino and Asian immigrant neighborhood. It is home for the largest concentration of immigrants and people of color in School District 15. Our community has been under siege for years by city government divestment, neglect, and the invasion of financial capital like Jamestown of Industry City, and Madison Realty Capital. In the last 10 years, rents have skyrocketed. Shopping at the Key Foods and C-Town chain supermarkets is becoming as expensive as a Trader Joe’s. Locally owned Chinese language bookstores, and Dominican and Mexican restaurants have closed. Many families have been forced to move, as the waterfront speculation has made way for new apartment buildings and expensive eateries with unmistakably Anglo names like “Judy’s” to serve the incoming wealthier, whiter population moving in from de Blasio’s home base, Park Slope. By no coincidence, along with the corporate investment has come the increased criminalization of our community in the form of ICE patrols and NYPD monitoring.
The crisis we faced was amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as de Blasio and Cuomo displaced more people by death than developers could ever dream of. Refusing to shut down and implement standards like mask-wearing or quarantining the sick drove our neighborhood into an apocalyptic frenzy.
Every 10 to 15 minutes, all day, all night, an ambulance siren echoed through the empty streets. All the local businesses save a few chain grocery stores were shuttered indefinitely. Even the long-time bodegas that tried to stay open had employees and employers falling sick. For months a refrigerator truck full of corpses stood parked outside the funeral home across the street from my 4-year-old’s new school. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost someone. Too many family, friends and neighbors fell ill, and too many died.
Those who managed to survive their loved ones now face a second death, drowning in the debt of funeral and burial costs, and having to survive on one less income while coping with the trauma of losing a family member, a spouse, a parent. Mutual aid networks, food pantries and GoFundMe efforts have barely touched the economic insecurity that thousands of families face with no end in sight. New testing information just released puts the Sunset Park infection rate at around much higher than the 1% citywide average.
New York City’s coronavirus pandemic response is racist state violence. Our largest workforce is in the service industry—restaurants, cleaning, hospitality, delivery—jobs that were largely deemed essential services throughout the pandemic; not coincidentally jobs filled by people of color and immigrants. An exponentially higher rate of black and brown people already suffering from lack of good healthcare, living in crowded apartments with an ominous threat of future eviction, are being forced to return to work outside the home, and are getting sick or dying of coronavirus. We have been pushed to make impossible choices between death by COVID or by debt, between saving our health or our home. If we haven’t yet been displaced by big real estate and gentrification, we will be displaced by a COVID death. It is infuriating that we are being told this is the reality we have to accept, that prioritizing rich people’s profits over working people’s health and lives is unavoidable, and if we’re lucky we’ll survive.
Throughout this pandemic, the government has expertly pushed the onus onto individuals, absolving themselves of responsibility. They have helped investors and big business to continue the looting and stealing. The Senate has blocked continued pandemic economic relief to working families. The Democratic National Convention’s platform committee dismissed Medicare For All, in the middle of a massive global health crisis. At the same time, Governor Cuomo is vowing to block any tax on billionaires. Billionaires. As in people who hoard more than 200,000 times the average annual income of families in Sunset Park. Instead of putting resources into Sunset Park and other communities hardest hit by the pandemic, City Council Speaker and 2021 Mayoral hopeful Corey Johnson is reducing discretionary funding for our City Council district from $7.85 million to $0. And City Council members from across the boroughs are coming out in support of rezonings like that requested by Industry City that will continue to displace the most vulnerable black and brown families reeling from the COVID-19 crisis.
All of the markers for reopening NYC were never designed to prevent the spread of COVID. The City is merely slowing the infection rate just enough so the pandemic lasts longer, people keep dying at just the right rate for business to go on as usual. The haphazard reopening of schools amidst the pandemic is perhaps the clearest example of how, Democrat or Republican, the government really doesn’t care about anything but rich people’s profits. Is this the real meaning behind “New York Tough”? That we are brave and courageous to be treated as disposable slaves to a political and economic system that is killing us?
My 7-year-old is asking me, “Why don’t we strike?” At such a young age he has had to learn there is no voting our way out of this crisis. And as responsible parents and good community members, our goals should not be getting back to the conditions that created this crisis. If we want to both educate our children and keep them safe, then we better be teaching them to fight against injustice and all forms of state violence. We better teach them that we stand together with teachers, because we will not risk more death for the benefit of the wealthy.
No reopening until there are zero (0) new cases, universal healthcare and adequate financial relief for workers regardless of immigration status, fully funded public schools and healthcare facilities. And send the tab to the billionaires that have been looting and robbing us.
Now is the time to ask for too much, demand too much. It’s literally come down to this: Organize or die.