Reopening Schools Is a Test That We’re All Failing Together

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

In working through what to say to my children about school in the fall, I remember that butterflies’ hearts are in their wings—and how I came to know this a decade ago.

My daughter’s hand curled up in a fist in my hand just as we reached the school’s front door. A moment ago, our clasped hands swung lightly between us. We chatted easily about the day ahead as we navigated the thicket of strollers, and we were just a few steps from her official start as a public-school student when she tensed. I followed her gaze and saw the long mesh basket hanging from a hook in the corner. Inside, I could make out a clutch of butterflies darting and gliding in flight. With each turn, she burrowed deeper into my side. Of all the possible troubles I’d conjured, I’d missed this.

It was the first day of the unit on metamorphosis, explained her teacher, who approached with widened eyes that matched my daughter’s. The children had been tending to the caterpillars for a few weeks, and now the Painted Ladies were ready for their close-ups. “Aren’t you the luckiest girl? Today we’re going to meet our new friends. Are you ready?” She was not.

My daughter had joined midway through the school year, together with a cohort of other kids whose parents, like me, wanted to wait a bit longer before enrollment. She was younger than most, a small slip of a girl with dark bangs, and quite content with full days tending to her books at home and friends at the park. When spring arrived, she was ready for more, and here we were.

But she missed the earlier sessions on habitat building and chrysalis formation. She’d not gaped at wriggling bodies under magnifying glass or seen their spinning silk glow.

And while I’d never known her to fear the butterflies we’d encountered before, she’d decided quick. These were not her friends.

She cleaved to my side, rigid and silent. 

No entreaty would get her to budge—not until the mesh habitat was put away on its outside perch, far from her sight. Even then, her eyes darted anxiously about the room as she joined the reading circle.

I spent most of that first morning perched in a tiny chair fast against the play kitchen, typing furtive messages with my work bags piled beside the plastic fruit. From a distance, I kept watch, shooting over a reassuring smile when her wary eyes sought mine and offering a quick hug when she ventured near. I became familiar with that corner over the next few days, before trading it in for a bench in an office upstairs as her anxiety slowly uncoiled. 

The idea was to hover, if less discernibly.

Whether a few feet away or a floor above, I yearned to lessen, if not dispel, her anguish. Weeks after the initial fright, she still entered the class gingerly, always looking up first. Lips pursed, she’d linger by my side before spotting a friend and easing away.

So I stayed close though out of sight, tucked away upstairs, ready for a flight of my own.

I spoke with her teachers and the school director, and together we fashioned a strategic plan, equal parts accommodation and proselytism. Sometimes the habitat remained on its perch outside for the day, other times a teacher would walk with her when it was her turn to come close and make her “scientific observation.” We bumped up on-brand books (thank you, Eric Carle) in the rotation at home. And every day, I peppered our conversations with thoughts on insects, flight and fear. 

Because I knew the plans of her teachers and the school and they knew mine, we worked together to help her and, over time, I relinquished my post upstairs and returned to the land of grown-up chairs. 

She, in turn, leaned happily into new routines, lingering after dismissal to chat with her teachers and friends.

A decade later, she now pores over orientation materials that aim to prep her for her first year in a new school. As avidly as I once catalogued the fine print on nut-free birthdays and the caliber of pencil lead, she now immerses herself in details on AP courses and mock trials. There is talk of the planned spring trip to Spain and Portugal.

We are again in close proximity, often at an elbow’s distance at the dining table or splayed beside each other on the couch. We are joined by her younger brother, who is also starting a new school this fall. He too asks smart questions about his new space, what teacher or subject he expects will challenge him most, and whether he will play basketball.

It is the same couch on which we have spent the better part of the last four months together, conjoined helices with laptops. We have cut-and-pasted makeshift classrooms and offices in every corner. We are walking battery packs.

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Since New York City closed its public schools in March, we have lived, worked and learned a few feet apart, a norm punctuated by meals at the same table and press conferences on the same couch. In the beginning, the oddness felt exhilarating, like a snow day on steroids. They giggled about having the extra days at home and reveled in having major projects preempted. I hosted countless virtual meetings while taking in Fortnite battles and basting meats.

But that early silliness dissipated, as the daily briefings from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio for weeks detailed spreading contagion and death at our doors. We listened together as mild admonitions gave way to dire strictures, as more of the simple color and shape of their days—softball, supermarket runs, and family visits—vanished.

The enormity of a global plague is made discrete in a child’s words, in queries that hover like fearsome butterflies. 

What about my term paper next week? Are we seeing Papa today? Am I still in the spelling bee? Is there a spelling bee? Do you have my mask? Am I ever going back?

They ask me because it is in the contract that I know such things, that I am an arbiter in the void.

I’ve learned along the way, as the governor contradicts in the afternoon the plan the mayor laid out in the morning, and the president tweets something else entirely by evening while bewildered school officials keep mum as they weigh their choices.

So I have done as all good mothers would—I dissembled, I repackaged and redirected. Quick, look over here. I said, “I don’t know,” often. And when it was at hand, when I could make out its ragged edges, and could gird myself, I told them the truth.

Yes, there’d be a spelling bee. Until there wasn’t.

No, we would not see my parents this week. Or next. But we would surprise them with a roast left at their door.

And though early on, I assured them they would sit at their desks again, that they’d sing in morning assembly and run the bases soon enough, that they would be with their friends again before the last day of school, they never did return. To any of it.

We are just weeks away from a presumed start to the new school year now.

Plans for reopening were due to the state for final approval this past Friday. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza submitted the city’s overall plan, in which the majority of students are expected to physically be in class two to three days a week as part of a blended learning model involving online instruction—so long as the city’s positive test rate remains below 3 percent. Lacking were important details on transportation, PPE provisions, staffing and building capacity. Also missing were specific plans for the system’s 1,800 individual schools as crafted by principals, who now have an extension after missing the same Friday deadline.

The unions representing teachers and school administrators both wasted little time in blasting the city’s preliminary plans as insufficient.

And Governor Cuomo, who reminded everyone the city was late with its homework, also noted that the proposal was just that. That the state would have the last word.

Besides, the reopening plan is just the beginning of a dialogue between parents and the school district, added Cuomo.

Just the beginning.

Oh.

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Perhaps the mayor and the governor, and the chancellor and the unions could find time to schedule a few Zoom calls before such pronouncements, wherein the fate of 1.1 million children might not serve as the latest round in an endless political tug-of-war so steeped in pettiness it endures even in a pandemic. 

Surely, as time seeps away, and our children age apart in separate rooms, there must be a new urgency to seek common ground and cohere around a set of strategies built around their well-being. We are New York Smart and Tough and Disciplined and Loving, remember? Or didn’t you see the poster?

This isn’t unique to New York, of course. Across the country, in districts that intend to open in the fall, ones that will again be teaching remotely and ones still struggling with this school year like no other, as the usual tensions between leaders have been exposed, and worsened, by the hard choices the virus has forced on us—ones made that much tougher by the president’s lack of interest in setting clear guidelines, or in extending assistance to see the country and its children out of this crisis.

Of the many unwelcome realities that have subsumed us all in the last few months, few have been as obnoxious or irresponsible as the patent unwillingness of our stakeholders to choose to do better, together. Whether on sheltering in place, closing the subways, suspending schools, codifying testing protocols, and even announcing reopening phases, no opportunity for confusion or discontent has been wasted in New York. 

Not even for the children.

If March’s displacement endured specifically by the city’s 1.1 million public-school students was a necessary trauma, the lack of coordination months later to collaboratively engineer a safe and thoughtful return to school is a willful turn to negligence on the part of administrators, elected officials and education leaders.

The needless cacophony of contradictions has upended the smallest suggestion of security, often in the space of a single day.

Such whiplash strains credulity and saps patience. 

I wonder if the absence of young nervous children at their own dinner tables keeps the men at the helm of these conversations here from feeling the sharp edges of panic that so readily pierce my thoughts. They speak at a distance I am not afforded.

We have watched cool spring evenings slip into sultry mornings largely indoors. He says he’ll wait to cut his hair, which now imperils his vision. They swap turnips on Animal Crossing and we harvest basil from a long cylinder on the sill. 

The promise of fall draws near, and I field new questions.

Their eyes watch closely as I tell them what I know and ask what they think. Our words flit and rise above us. We sketch out a plan, and then another.

And I stay close.

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