School Closings Were Not Inevitable. We Should All Be Furious.

In person school was our one bright spot. And now it's gone.

by Robert P. Baird

It was 2:17 P.M., give or take a minute, when our household got word yesterday that New York City public schools were shutting down thanks to a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the city. I can vouch for the time because I immediately texted my wife the news.

Since late September my two kids have been attending their elementary school on a so-called blended model. Five days out of every two weeks they’re in the classroom with their teachers. The other school days they spend on their iPads, learning remotely. The classroom setup is no one’s idea of normal: the kids wear masks all day, they eat lunch alone at their desks, and they are randomly tested for COVID. (It’s the “good kind” of test, my daughter says, where they swab your nostril instead of scratching your cerebral cortex.) Still, it’s been a spectacular improvement over the juddering duct-tape-and-baling-wire wreck that was “Papa School” last spring.

After several deep but not entirely calming breaths, I went to tell my kids.

“No more in-person school for a while,” I told them.

“Why?” my daughter asked.

“Same answer we’ve had all year: because of COVID.”

“That’s not true,” she said. “Some answers were: because of Trump.”

Because of COVID, because of Trump: a person living in America these past ten months could be forgiven for thinking those phrases nearly synonyms. Two hundred and fifty thousand Americans dead, and why? Because of COVID, because of Trump. Uncontrolled spread in forty-seven states, and why? Because of COVID, because of Trump. For ten months COVID and Donald Trump have often appeared to be the joint authors of our national catastrophe, a symbiotic pair whose individual characteristics seemed evolutionarily destined to magnify each other’s destructive reach.

But my daughter was right: there is a difference, and the powers that be in New York seem determined to prove it.

I can eat breakfast in a diner, work out at a gym, visit a museum, gamble in a casino, work in an office, or pray in a church, but 300,000 public-school kids cannot go to school.

It was not Trump, after all, but Bill de Blasio, the mayor, who agreed to shut down every public school if and when the city hit 3% test positivity, and left himself no mechanism to revisit that hard cap if schools saw far fewer disease outbreaks than many people feared. It was not Trump but Richard Carranza, the Schools Chancellor, who notified principals at 2:02 P.M. yesterday that school was cancelled starting this morning, instead of waiting at least for a weekend to avoid maximum disruption.

It was not Trump but Andrew Cuomo, the governor, who’s responsible for the absurd, infuriating fact that today I can eat a meal in a diner, work out at a gym, visit a museum, gamble in a casino, work in an office, or pray in a church, but 300,000 public-school kids cannot go to school. And perhaps most critically, it’s not Trump but all of these men who will have to put together, and enforce, a plan for getting New York’s incipient second wave under control if we’re to have any hope of reopening schools soon.

Elementary school students being welcomed back to New York CIty’s P.S. 188 as the city's public schools opened for in-person learning last September. Getty

I don’t want to overstate things. The end of in-person schooling is not the end of the world, especially not for families like ours, who have enough time, money, and educational capital to ensure that their kids will not suffer too much academically or socially. (I worry much more about the families without these resources, but it is not my place to speak for them.) I have no doubt that our school’s brave and wonderful teachers and staff will work just as hard to make remote learning successful as they did to make the past eight weeks of in-person teaching function as well as they did.

But I am not yet willing to give up on my anguish. Having kids in the classroom for a few days each week was important in the first place because they learn better there, and are happier there, than they are trying to learn on an iPad at home. But it was also important as a bright spot in a year full of upheaval and abject political failures at every level of government.

Schools opening safely this fall was a rare and desperately needed sign that not every pillar of our society was going to be laid low by failures of leadership.

After the citywide devastation we saw last spring, New York’s ability to get its schools open safely this fall was a rare and desperately needed sign that not every pillar of our society was going to be laid low by the same failings that have marked the American response to COVID so far. It was no wonder that the 3% test positivity limit began to loom for some of us, in our pandemic-fevered imaginations, as the last bulwark that separated civilization and chaos.

In the weeks and months to come, journalists, epidemiologists, and historians will sort out how it came to this. They will tell us what combination of ineptitude, inertia, and self-interest allowed New York to slide so blithely into a second wave, and how it happened that eating brunch indoors or attending a CrossFit class got more political deference than sending kids to school.

For now, though, the dispassionate analysis can wait. Let us have our fury and despair. Let us give the occasion the only commentary the moment deserves, the single word I texted my wife yesterday with the news of school closing: FUUUUUUUCK.