Don’t go remote, NYC schools

Mayor Eric Adams and his schools chancellor, David Banks, recently endorsed the idea of a remote option for students, likely prompted by low attendance rates the last two weeks. But the answer to kids staying home is not to encourage kids to stay home more. Attendance will likely improve on its own in the coming weeks, as students recover from COVID and parental fears ease.

To understand how disastrous a remote option would be for our city’s youth, let’s take a look back at what “remote learning” amounted to last time — which I witnessed up close as a social school worker.

From March to June 2020, New York City didn’t require teachers to offer live instruction. School consisted of students completing assignments that teachers posted asynchronously. We would have called this “doing homework” in 2019. To be marked present, students had to check a box on a Google form. Daily attendance was nothing more than checking for a pulse.

I found it nearly impossible to reach our most vulnerable students. Merely getting a one-word text message on my Google Voice number was a success. It took until June even to track down some students. At the time of greatest mental-health need, our students had the least access to support.

Fast forward to September 2020, and it was not much better. While at least students received live Zoom lessons, they were under no obligation to turn on their cameras or microphones, and very few did. So many remote students were literally not seen or heard from for 18 months.

Mayor Eric Adams recently endorsed a potential return to remote learning for New York City schools.
Stefan Jeremiah

Despite their best efforts, teachers were talking to 30-plus gray squares with muted microphones, not knowing if their students were listening or even physically present. Teachers and counselors were working twice as hard for a tenth of the result.

Imagine doing a counseling session under these conditions. Let’s say a student writes a concerning essay about feeling depressed. I enter the Zoom classroom and take the child into a breakout room. If I’m lucky, the child communicates via the Zoom chat, hardly the recipe for a meaningful counseling conversation. If I’m not lucky, the child isn’t even there. Students were marked present just for logging in, no matter if Zoom stayed in their pocket while they worked a part-time job or played video games.

The Omicron wave is rapidly decreasing in New York City, but even at its peak, only one in 100,000 children was hospitalized weekly, and that decreased to two to three per million in vaccinated children. By comparison, 20 in 100,000 were hospitalized for the flu in the 2019-2020 season, and we never dreamed of making school remote then. Every child 5 and up has access to two COVID shots, and every child 12 and up has access to three.

It’s time to resume normal school.

We should work to assuage parental fears about COVID. In my role as a school social worker, I have been engaging with families all year to address their specific concerns. 

Students walking out of Fiorello H. La Guardia High School amid calls for a return to remote learning during the Omicron variant wave.
Students walking out of Fiorello H. La Guardia High School amid calls for a return to remote learning during the Omicron variant wave.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

Indeed, many students returned last week after initial Omicron worries. Now I fear the mayor’s musing about a remote option will validate the false idea that school is not safe.

Many families, furthermore, would choose remote for non-COVID reasons. Before the pandemic, I made many home visits to students who had school anxiety, crippling depression or other obstacles to regular attendance. Now many of these students will stay remote to the detriment of their mental health and academic well-being.

It bears remembering that teenagers do not always love going to school. Look no further than “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” If we tell students that they can earn attendance credit for staying home, many will take us up on that offer. But there’s a reason we do not allow 14-year-olds to make policy decisions. As adults, we know that the social and emotional aspects of school are crucial for children and prepare them for a successful transition into adulthood.

Are we really going to turn school into an option? We are destroying a century-old norm of compulsory universal education. 

Allowing an unrestricted remote option would be catastrophic for kids after nearly two years of stunted child development, especially the “asynchronous” model the Department of Education is floating that would resemble March 2020. 

Children have no agency. It is up to us as adults to provide a free and fair education to every child, and that means in-person school.

Justin Spiro is a school social worker at a Queens high school. Twitter: @jusrangers

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