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Opinion | Remote School Is a Nightmare. Few in Power Care.

Government should treat the need to reopen schools as an emergency.June 29, 2020Credit…Jeff Chiu/Associated PressScott Stringer, the comptroller of New York City, has sons who are 7 and 8 years old. Over the last three months, like many parents, he’s tried to navigate what schools are optimistically calling “remote learning” while he and his wife…

Government should treat the need to reopen schools as an emergency.

Michelle Goldberg

Credit…Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Scott Stringer, the comptroller of New York City, has sons who are 7 and 8 years old. Over the last three months, like many parents, he’s tried to navigate what schools are optimistically calling “remote learning” while he and his wife both worked from home. It’s been, he told me, “one of the most challenging things I ever had to do in my life.”

So when he hears from parents desperate to understand what’s happening with schools in September, he empathizes. As in many other cities, if New York public schools reopen, students will likely be in the classroom only part-time. But no one knows if that means that students will attend on alternate days, alternate weeks or — Stringer’s preference — in half-day shifts.

“Parents have no more information today about what schools will look like in the fall than they did last March,” he wrote in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, last week.

With expanded unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of July, many parents will have no choice but to return to work by September. Even for parents who can work from home, home schooling is often a crushing burden that’s destroying careers, mental health and family relationships. And online school has had dismal results, especially for poor, black and Hispanic students.

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Three Families. Nine Weeks. ‘Things Are Getting Annoying.’

The lessons they learned while parenting in place.

There we go. Good. There we go. Yay. Yay. [MUSIC PLAYING] We’re the Pauls. We’re the Orangos. We are at the Carter-McLaughlin-Milstein family. Or Mill Carterstein McDonlaughlinsons. We spent the first three weeks just butting heads. I don’t keep track anymore. Everything’s blurred together. Being a naturally rather bossy person, like, I was looking to control what I can control, and so there is, like, it sets up an inherent conflict. At this point, things are getting annoying. I’m a single dad. I’m a chief revenue officer in a technology company. Yeah, that sounds — that sounds good. I’m sort of applying what I would in terms of management at work into my home structure with my kids, who have never seen me in that mode before. He thinks we are his team, but we’re not. You are my home team. Yeah, and we’re not used to it. You’re my home team. But this is not how — OK. This is not we work. No, no. I know. I know. So so — We can’t work like this. He thinks we’re not during our work and we’re just reading when we’re really reading for school. I’ll see her sort of lounging back on the couch. What are you doing? Reading. Reading a book. She’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing, but to me visually it sort of looks like she’s just lounging. He doesn’t know what we’re doing at all. I look at your agenda every morning. No, you don’t. Most of the times. No. OK, fine. Before quarantine, our dad would do this thing where he would live his life with these three principles — honesty, integrity and purpose. Honesty, integrity, purpose. Meaning, like, he wants to do meditation. Now we get dragged into it. This is, like, a goal that I want for them. But we don’t have any interest in this. No, we don’t. No shared interest here. I’ll tell you what, I do have a swear jar, and there’s way, way more money in that swear jar than — Oh, you’ve kept up with that? Yeah. Yeah. There’s a lot of cash in there now, because I don’t know what you guys are hearing anymore. Most of the fighting that went on in this house was the boss and my son. My son was away in college, and I think he didn’t understand the severity of the situation. Kind of a hard adjustment. Like, I had a lot of freedom and independence. I could what I want, when I wanted, whenever I wanted, and then, when I came home, it was kind of like going back to listening to Mom and Dad. I want to go out. You can’t go out. Why not? We’re in a global pandemic. I was like, maybe it was better when he was back in his dorm. She’s the boss, so I’ll follow the rules, too, you know? I’ve been following the rules for 20 years now. The first rule is, we all have to have dinner together. We’re your typical New York family. You know, everybody is sitting at the table with a little frown on their face. Since we’re all together in the house all day, like, there isn’t really much to talk about. She’s like, watching, like, TikToks, because she’s obsessed with the app. I don’t watch TikTok at dinner. Very [INAUDIBLE]. My second rule is — more pertains to Skye. She does remote learning in her bedroom and I do teaching out in our living room space, and so I ask her if she needs any help to come into my space. And it’s so funny. Sometimes I will walk by her room and she’s like, Bro, you just walked past my door. Why can’t you just come to me? But she doesn’t realize that it’s, like, either I quickly took a bathroom break, I quickly went to get something from my bedroom, but I need to get back to where I was at. So I’ll make her come out, and she’s literally like — Why can’t you just come over to me, and why do you have to make this rule? My mom has a rule that nobody can come into her space, but she comes into my space all the time, unwanted and unasked for. What are you doing? Stop. So I’ll come in the room, and then I’ll sit. And he’s like, whoa, whoa, whoa. What just happened? Why are you sitting down? What you, like, what, wait, what, what? What’s happening? She’s always like, smiling, wanting to, like, kiss me and hug me all the time. I’m like, yo, Ma, like, get out. What are you doing? Let me look at that face. All right, but like, get out. This is absolutely just a parenting nightmare. I’m Christine, and I live with my daughters Amalia, Fiona and Macy. Macy’s my stepdaughter. You can cut my hair after, if I can cut yours. Stepson Tanner, my husband, Mark. This is actually not Mark, this is Mike. Mike is my first husband. And I live within a mile down the road with my wife, Tanya, and my stepdaughter Sophie. So because there’s four parents and five kids, it has really complicated how we shelter in place. So we’re always dealing with new things that the kids are always bringing up on, how about if I can do this? How about if I can do that? First, a kid will come forward with a proposal. We actually call them proposals. It did remind me of when I was in middle school and I had to, like, ask my parents’ permission before I could go anywhere. You know, it really could have been the four parents against the five kids. I have this idea that my family doesn’t understand when they do understand, and so I just kind of take it out on them. It was like, you don’t get me. I think it was a lot harder at first to really be empathetic and to listen to the kids’ concerns and to sort of see that the ways in which they are suffering are really different than the ways that we are struggling. The first time that I had my best friend over, we had set up this entire protocol. I was all the way over here, and she was all the way back here. So we were pretty far apart. And my brother Tanner, who is 17, he sits directly next to her. They had made, like, a big case that they didn’t need to be watched or policed, but then, there I was watching them, and I saw it happen and came out. She’s super mad and is saying, you’re not six feet away, and everything, and got so mad. It was quite a scene. I really had the time to come around and realize that my actions will affect people in our joint family who, you know, I never really see on a daily basis. You know, I’m taking care of them, and I’m still working, so I’ve kind of had to lay off of myself and not put external pressures to be some type of, I don’t know, Betty Crocker quarantine mom, because I’m not, at all. Mm-mmm. Even though it’s been, I think, more work up front to come together, it’s resulted for us as a family in a lot less conflict. And the truth is, I’ve also really put to the test, like, how patient I am, how patient they are with me. How was that noodle lunch? What’s another word for disgusting? Disgusting? And I think we — again, nine weeks into this quarantine, I think — It feels like — I don’t even know. It feels like a lifetime ago when I could actually have a sleepover with my friends. Like that’s — Yes. So it just boils down to sleepover. I don’t think they heard a word I just said. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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The lessons they learned while parenting in place.

Yet the nightmarish withdrawal of the key social support underlying modern parenthood is being presented as a fait accompli, rather than a worst-case scenario that government is mobilizing to prevent. “This school system should be leading the country on figuring out how to bring our kids back,” said Stringer. “And there’s no creativity. There’s no energy behind it.”

This isn’t just a New York City problem. At every level, government is failing kids and parents during the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that if schools reopen, students’ desks should be placed six feet apart, which means far fewer kids in most classrooms. But there’s been no crash program to find or build new classroom space, or to hire more teachers.

Few seem to be exploring the possibility of outdoor classes where weather allows. Experts I spoke to knew of no plans to scale up child care for parents who will need it. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, described school districts as “immobilized” by lack of funding.

Reopening schools is an excruciating challenge, but more could be done to rise to it. “There’s a missed creative opportunity to use a different teaching force,” said Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University and author of “Expecting Better” and “Cribsheet.”

She suggested hiring college-aged people — who are disproportionately unemployed — as something like camp counselors. Kids, kept in pods, would attend schools for part of the day, then move to a space where counselors could oversee online learning or recess.

“Those things cost money, but having a bunch of kids lose out on their learning and having their parents not go to work also costs money,” she said.

There’s some evidence that young kids don’t transmit the coronavirus at the same rate as adults. In countries where schools have reopened, few outbreaks have been traced to elementary schools. As NPR reported, there have been no reported clusters at the child care centers that stayed open all over the country this spring to watch the children of essential workers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” Schools, it says, “should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a six-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.”

But many teachers, understandably, aren’t willing to jettison C.D.C. guidelines. So if American kids, unlike those in most other developed countries, continue to see their education derailed by the coronavirus, the fault lies primarily with a federal government that puts out safety standards but won’t help schools meet them.

Weingarten tells me that if the Senate doesn’t pass the HEROES Act, a House bill that contains around $100 billion in support for education, she thinks many schools, including those in New York City, won’t open at all in September. To open safely, schools are going to need much more money to buy protective equipment like gloves and masks, retrofit buildings and hire more teachers and nurses.

Instead, the economic crisis is forcing budget cuts. “What are states going to do? What are localities going to do?” she asks.

My kids go to elementary school in New York City, and I found Weingarten’s words gutting. But she thinks school districts need to start leveling with parents about what we’re facing, unless Republicans in the Senate can somehow be moved to act.

“At least plan with people so that people can get their heads around ‘This is what a school will look like,’” she said. “‘This is what the schedule will be. And if we don’t get the money we’re on remote.’” Airlines got a bailout. Parents are on their own.

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