Coronavirus: New York City parents are exhausted but will they send their children to school?

Lisandra Sanchez with her son Johan, who she opted out of in-person high school classes, at a playground in Harlem on Sept 3, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Ms Adriana Aviles has been holding dress rehearsals for the first day of school. Her three children wear face masks in their Queens home all day, every other day, to practise for when they return to school buildings in a few weeks.

Ms Aviles says her children cannot wait to go back to school, and she is frustrated that the city recently delayed the start date by nearly two weeks, to Sept 21.

"We'll get some normalcy hopefully, and God willing we'll be okay," she said of the return to school. "We practised what we need to practise."

Across the city, in Harlem, Ms Lisandra Sanchez recently delivered some disappointing news to her son, a rising high school freshman: She did not think it was safe for him to physically attend school because some classes might be held outdoors. She is worried about crime around the building, so she opted her son out of in-person learning.

"In the community where I live at, it's not really safe," Ms Sanchez said.

New York City, home to the nation's largest school district, is poised to be the only big city in the country to offer in-person education at the start of its school year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has faced resistance from some educators and politicians in his bid to reopen classrooms, but has said he is determined to bring children back into school buildings to support the city's overwhelmingly black, Latino and low-income student body.

Students who decide to return to classrooms will report to school between one and three days a week to allow for social distancing.

"I have heard the voices of thousands and thousands of parents over the years," Mr de Blasio said in a recent interview.

"They need this," he said of in-person instruction, "and it's our obligation to give it to them."

Yet many parents said they were exhausted from a summer of conflicting information and last-minute changes on school reopening, particularly the mayor's recent decision to delay the start of the school year just 10 days before school buildings were scheduled to open.

Nearly 40 per cent of parents have opted to have their children learn fully remotely through at least the first few months of the school year. That number, which could grow before the start of classes, reflects the deep divide among the city's families about how to approach in-person learning.

No two perspectives seem exactly alike.

In interviews, some parents said that remote learning in the spring had been a complete failure for their children, and that they were desperate to get them into schools as soon as possible. Others said there were simply too many unknowns about the coronavirus to reassure them that school buildings would be safe. And some said they were still grappling with whether they should send their children back or not.

Recent polling has shown that the black and Latino families that make up roughly 70 per cent of the city's 1.1 million-student system have been especially wary of sending their children back to school, reflecting the disproportionately harsh impact the virus has had on their communities.

More than half of Asian American families have opted into remote learning, the highest rate of any ethnic group in the city. Roughly 35 per cent of black and Latino parents have chosen all-remote, while only 25 per cent of white families have opted out of in-person classes.

Some schools have encouraged or in some cases explicitly asked parents to choose remote-only, either to give children with disabilities and other vulnerable students more time for in-person instruction, or to make it simpler for schools to offer all their usual classes and arrange schedules.

A high-performing school district in north-east Queens that educates many first- and second-generation immigrants has seen the highest percentage of families opt out of in-person learning of any of the city's 32 local school districts, at 50 per cent. The lowest opt-out rates have been on Staten Island, home to many white and middle-class families, and in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a largely Latino neighbourhood.

The middle school that Ms Emily Paige runs in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, shows a split on remote learning, even among families who live in the same neighbourhood and whose children attend the same school.

Half of the parents at her school, the Urban Assembly Unison School, have opted into remote learning, and half have indicated they would prefer in-person education. About 80 per cent of Ms Paige's students are black and most of the rest are Latino.

"There are parents who are really, really, really, fearful," Ms Paige said, noting that some of her students had lost friends and family members to the virus, and that some lived in multigenerational homes. And then there were plenty of families who had weighed the risks and felt it was worth it for their children to spend less time on their screens and more time with their friends.

Ms Paige is one of those parents: She has decided to send her son to school later this month.

"I find myself as a mum yearning for him to have social interactions," she said, adding that she had received a litany of e-mails from her students, asking when they could come back to school.

Ms Paige is one of the hundreds of principals who have spent the past month pushing the city to delay the start of school, citing safety and logistical issues.

After weeks of pressure to change the start date, Mr de Blasio finally relented earlier this week, as part of a deal to avert a teachers' strike. Union leaders had threatened to authorise an illegal strike if schools did not have more time to secure personal protective gear, upgrade ventilation systems and train staff on new safety protocols. And principals pleaded with the mayor to give them more time to create two versions of school: one in-person and one online.

Ms Paige's relief at the delay was shared by educators who said they only wished the mayor had announced the new start date earlier.

Mr Mike Loeb, a middle school science teacher in the Bronx, said he appreciated having more time to prepare. But he said he was concerned about the quality of instruction he could offer when his students could not do group work or share lab materials.

"I don't think a lot of people have thought through what this experience is going to be like for a 13-year-old," he said.

Ms Josee Bienvenu, a parent in Brooklyn, is trying to think it through. She has chosen to send her son and daughter back to school, but she still is not sure what the first day of school will look like, or which days they will attend class in person.

She was hoping for more clarity from an upcoming Zoom meeting for parents. For now, she said, "no one has answers".

Ms Josee Bienvenu, a parent in Brooklyn, has chosen to send her son and daughter back to school. PHOTO: NYTIMES

But she was clear about one thing: Anything was preferable to remote learning, which she said could turn children into "zombies", tethered to their screens all day and into the night.

"How long can we keep our children disconnected?" Ms Bienvenu said.

She has also been frustrated by what she sees as a political fight between the mayor and the teachers' union, the powerful United Federation of Teachers, that has not centred on the needs of parents.

"I feel that teachers are front-line workers as much as nurses and supermarket workers," she said. "But if they are required to go back, they need to be protected."

Ms Sanchez, the parent in Harlem, would agree that remote learning had been frustrating for her son, and said that she had hoped to send him back into the classroom for his first year of high school.

But questions just kept piling up: What would flu season be like? Would her school use a neighbouring street for outdoor classes, which Ms Sanchez believed would be unsafe?

The delayed start date, she said, validated her decision to opt into all-remote learning.

"If you're changing the start date, that means you guys are not ready," she said. "The way I'm thinking, there's a lot of parents thinking that way, too."

Ms Frankie Brown is also worried about sending her children back into classrooms. But like many parents, she feels she has little choice.

"We don't know how safe it is for the kids to go back to school," she said. "But in my case, I'm a single working parent, so I'm kind of pushed against the wall. I have to actually put them back in school. That has me nervous, but I don't have much option."

Ms Brown, a hospital clerk who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, is not sure which days her children will be attending school, and what they will do on days when she is at work while they are learning at home. She has applied for seats in a new city childcare programme and for an after-school programme at the Salvation Army, but she still hasn't heard back.

The feeling that there are few good options is pervasive among New York's public school parents.

After months of deliberation, Ms Jordan Smith, who lives in Sunnyside, Queens, recently decided to send her son to pre-kindergarten in person.

Ms Smith said she was optimistic, but had lingering worries that she could come to regret her choice if school reopening went poorly.

"Every decision right now feels impossible and uncertain," Ms Smith said. "I don't think anything will feel 100 per cent right."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.