By Elana Rabinowitz

In all the raucous conversation circulating about schools reopening, one voice that is gravely missing from this conversation is that of the constituents who make up the population of New York City public schools. As an ESL teacher, I have always been the de facto voice of the immigrant families I serve. Their voices, as well as the majority of NYC public school families, are absent from this vital discussion. Many don’t have the luxury of forming elite pods, and many of their children will end up paying the price.

As a New York Public School teacher who is supposed to return to my classroom in the fall, I’ve seen firsthand the plans for reopening schools. The proposed model of hybrid teaching might be suitable for our suburban neighbors in Long Island and Westchester, but is not feasible in the numerous run-down, poorly ventilated school buildings in the New York City area. And these plans don’t go far enough to imagine how we can break the digital divide that has already arisen. Now is a moment in history where we can work together collectively to try to break those barriers, to make this time of digital exploration one where we can try to service all of our students better.

I’ve taught in public schools that are a mere ZIP code away in Brooklyn (Park Slope to Fort Greene), and seen a world of difference. Some have PTAs strong enough to fund entire teachers’ salaries, while others can’t afford erasers. Distance learning simply makes these disparities even more evident. The question we must face is: What are we going to do about it? Here are a few ideas.

We can modify the school year into terms and reassess after each one. It makes sense with classes scheduled to start this week that the money and energy reserved for possibly life-threatening learning should now be focused on better and more innovative solutions to online learning.

Perhaps we can use this digital age to have schools from different parts of the country converge and discuss the issues with each other—this could be a time for kids to connect around the nation. Programs that facilitate this kind of connection already exist, offered by platforms including the Digital Human Library, the World Bank, and of course, Zoom.

Let’s expand that connective spirit to teachers as well. Instead of having outsiders tell us what might work with our students, use inter-school professional development programs that have already succeeded. Hire tech-savvy teachers who already work with the current populations to train their fellow teachers on the techniques that work for them and can be adapted for other educators. (In case it needs to be said, pay these tech-savvy teachers for their extra labor.) While not ideal, this would create some equity in education across neighborhoods and districts, by providing all schools access to the same training, resources, and professional development that is already made available to better-funded schools.

We can’t simply have traumatized children and staff jump back into a typical setting. We need an actual plan. It should be similar to how volunteers helped health care workers during the onset of the pandemic. In New York hospitals, we saw numerous volunteers offer free counseling, and added staff came to help out in the crisis. If we can apply that ethic of collective support and generosity into the school year, we could meet our needs for more in-person and virtual education, as well as for more mental health professionals, who can offer ongoing advice and time to our staff and students.

We need to create Wi-Fi stations, specifically in low-income neighborhoods, so that kids can safely access the internet. Some major corporate internet providers have made hotspots available for free use beyond current subscribers during the pandemic, but access remains piecemeal and unevenly distributed.

Let’s try to find outside activities that children can participate in, so they don’t feel completely isolated and confined. Consider shadow tag instead of regular tag, outside yoga, anything that can help get our children healthy, active, and safely socialized.

While many of us adults are apprehensive about the power of remote learning, some data suggests that it can actually benefit students of various needs. It can be an easy way to differentiate learning to meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to digital learning and the internet, we would be remiss to not involve more teenagers in the process. There will likely be a rise in students taking gap years and living at home. Why not use this time to encourage youth to find internships that allow them to continue gaining knowledge in academia, music, or athletics—all things that can be supervised from a distance? These programs could even incorporate peer mentors, because students often are more comfortable opening up to peers rather than adults, and this type of interaction can help alleviate some of the concerns of lack of socializing.

One thing I am noticing in this prolonged time of suffering is that people seem to have lost their generous and open nature. As a result of our sustained fear and anxiety, many seem to have turned inward and care less about helping others. But that community concern and investment is the basis of education in the public sector.

As for learning pods, they may be an appropriate solution for some families. But it’s important to apply an equity lens to this decision. If you are a family considering a pod, are you making sure to include students of diverse backgrounds, or are you merely looking out for your own in this time of crisis? Do you realize that by not enrolling in your public school, you are jeopardizing their funding and possible future of schools?

If we can overcome those instincts—the ones that tell us to withdraw and watch only our own backs—we can look back at this time in history and know that together as a nation, we did the impossible. When in fact it is over (and it will be over), we can say with pride that we stopped virtually segregating schools and stood united in support of our children, instead of divided. And when we reboot and start again, things will not look the same as they once were. But we might just come out of the darkness a little lighter and with a lot more equity.

Your child is not going to die from lack of education, but the damage done from separate but equal is irrevocable. What is education anyway? Included in its meaning is “developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” With standardized tests deferred and grading modified, what do we want our students to learn at the end of this era? It’s up to you how the “Baby Zoomers”generation will grow up. And if we do this right, they could surpass us all.

This article was originally published in Yes!Magazine

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