The NYC Department of Education has put forward its plan for our public schools next fall. They call it “blended learning.” But to many parents, it sounds more like “disaster.” They are asking: with kids in school only one-half or even one-third of the time, how could I possibly go to work? It’s a question we can and must answer. 

About half of elementary school families (and nearly 30% of those with middle schoolers) indicated in a recent survey that they would need child care for the time their kids aren’t in the classroom. But so far the City has no plans to provide it. Under the proposed DOE plan, you can have a kid, or you can have a job, but you can’t really have both

That’s not only a disaster for parents. How can our economy function if grocery store and retail workers, construction workers, domestic workers and home health aids, office workers — indeed teachers themselves — don’t have child care for their kids?

Meanwhile, despite genuine effort from educators, students and families, remote learning just has not worked for many students. That’s especially true for the younger grades, where in-person learning is most critical, and for many students with IEPs who require therapies that are difficult to replicate at home.

These problems are amplified by vast socio-economic and racial inequalities. It may be upper-middle-class parents who contemplate leaving the city or leaving their jobs. But it is low-income, working-class, Black and immigrant families who are far more likely to need to work in jobs without flexibility to pay for rent and food. These families don’t have resources to pay for private child care. So many lack good access to technology for remote learning. They will suffer the most by far.

The constraints of COVID-19 are all-too-real, so there’s no way school can be anything like normal. Thirty NYC teachers and 40 other school staff died from COVID-19 this spring. There is some evidence from around the world that kids are less likely to catch the virus and less likely to spread it, but public health experts and officials do not have enough clear data to draw concrete conclusions.. 

So we must take aggressive steps to make school safe for staff and students alike, including dramatically smaller classes, mask-wearing, hand-washing, cleaning, and regular testing. Teachers and families can be forgiven for a lack of confidence, when so many schools don’t even have working sinks.

But no matter what scheduling gymnastics we employ to make classrooms safer, we must plan holistically to make back-to-school work this fall. . We can and must provide safe, educational, wrap-around child care for younger kids, and meaningful enrichment activities for all our students.   

DOE’s plans do get some things right. Some students and some teachers, who are at increased risk for COVID or with family members who are, will need to stay out of the schools. New York City families will be able to keep their children home this fall and opt for a full remote school schedule, regardless of medical need. Teachers will be able to seek a medical accommodation to teach remotely if they meet the CDC guidelines for having pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk.

And some other students will really need to be in-school full-time, including students in District 75 programs, and as many pre-K, kindergarten and first grade students as we can. DOE should do everything it can to allow for these young and vulnerable students to be in class as much as possible, including creatively utilizing outdoor spaces as well as unused seats in under-capacity schools.

But even with all that in place, DOE’s cohort models will still leave over 100,000 kids every day whose families need child care. 

So, for all families who need it, the City needs to provide a mix of age-appropriate enrichment activities for the time that students are not in the classroom. This can be offered in community centers, settlement houses, libraries, after-school organizations, YMCAs, houses of worship, closed offices, community gardens, even some tents set up in school playgrounds or parks. These spaces should be outfitted with WiFi and technology so students can participate in remote learning activities for some parts of the day.

Enrichment activities can be offered by not-for-profit community organizations, settlement houses, summer camp operators, after-school programs and more. While they won’t be credentialed teachers, they could be a mix of human service staff, college students and young people, class parents. With leadership and a strong framework for collaboration, we can tap into the creativity, expertise, and social solidarity of New Yorkers.      

Coordinating these activities is a massive job and needs to start right away. The City (not the DOE, who have a massive task just to reopen schools and cannot possibly be expected to solve this problem alone, but the Department of Youth and Community Development, the NYC Economic Development Corporation, and City Hall itself) should immediately issue RFPs for space, programming, and staff. 

This will be a massive undertaking, just like scaling up our hospital capacity was. New York State has millions of dollars still unallocated from the CARES Act for child care, but much more federal funding will be necessary. There is no reason to believe anything Trump or Betsy DeVos say about schools (or anything else); but if they believe schools should be open, then billions in federal funding are necessary. 

New York City should also require employers to accommodate employees whose working hours are limited by school availability. Many employers have provided flexibility, but as the economy starts to open back up, if we are only going to make it possible for working families to have half-time schooling, we’ll need to mandate that accommodations are made for half-time working, too. In 2017, the City Council passed a law requiring “fair scheduling” for fast-food and retail workers that can serve as a model. 

Finally, we should work together to make school next year largely about healing and resilience in the face of trauma. The learning our students do over the next year may not be the kind measured by state tests. But if we organize it right, our students can learn valuable lessons about social solidarity and resilience, in addition to academics next year.  

There is some amazing work taking place in our schools already, like that of the Bronx Healing-Centered Schools Working Group, who have offered a community roadmap for schools that help students heal and thrive amidst trauma. The Department of Education should support this work. Let’s cancel the traditional State tests now, rather than have students anxious about them all year, and re-align curriculum to match more thoughtful and realistic goals.

This is one of the hardest policy challenges ever. But we can do it, and we must. It is our responsibility to make sure that the steps forward in our schools don’t make life impossible for working parents. And that they do not not deepen the inequality divide in our city. A just economic recovery must center working families.