'Whole strength' needed to make schools happen again


Finding the ability to return New York City public school students to safe and effective and meaningful in-person instruction is the seminal issue of our time. The loss to young children is incalculable — first-graders may never be able to make up the deficits.

So far, central decisions are being made piecemeal. Information is not readily forthcoming, and as a result, principals are hamstrung in planning instruction for their individual and unique buildings.

Hermes Caraballo, a Bronx religious leader, enjoyed telling students about his brother, who was sent to live with his grandfather — his abuelo — in Puerto Rico as he was prone to trouble.

Each morning, abuelo would send his grandson out to the field to move a large rock. The boy struggled to move the rock each day, and when he returned exhausted and unsuccessful, abuelo said, “You must use your whole strength to move the rock.”

Finally, after days of struggle in the hot sun, the young man looked up to see his grandfather accompanied by his extended family with picnic baskets, all his neighbors, and their mule: “Here is your whole strength!”

Likewise, the education department and New York City must use its whole strength to ensure that more than a million children are not cheated out of their future. This requires leveraging every resource — just a few of which are noted here.

• Buildings must be equipped with effective, known safety measures, including virus filters and UVC blue lights. These measures also capture flu and rhinoviruses.

The School Construction Authority has building and facilities experts who must be re-tasked to the buildings to determine what can be done for each building, and then install those measures.

• Teacher shortages are a concern. Every person with an instructional credential employed by the central offices of the education department must be engaged in direct teaching, and tasked to the most at-risk areas. The initiatives they currently serve must be postponed, including — but not limited to — the current labor-intensive teacher evaluations.

New York state must waive many of its mandates. Hospitals task specialists with the care of medical patients. We can do no less.

• The costly state student evaluation must be deferred until all schools have been up and running for at least two years. Instead, less labor-intensive machine-scored reading and math tests should be used. One with a split-half reliability could be administered fall and spring to give a picture of student progress and program effectiveness.

• All possible resources must be quickly catalogued and made public. These might include vacated buildings, schoolyards, tents, and bubbles like those used to create hospital space, etc.

• Time must be considered in a new light. All seven days of the week could be used for in-person learning. Elementary schools could have half-day kindergarten, and shortened morning and afternoon sessions.

High schools could operate evening school and use the college model of in-person contact hours, and triple that time for independent work or digitally assisted learning, depending on need. Instruction could be recorded for families to be used at other times.

• Curriculum must be carefully planned and paced to ensure equity. Textbooks don’t require a constant digital platform and would be of enormous help to parents.

• DOE budgets and expenditures must be analyzed to capture cost savings that can be driven into making school safe and learning possible. Expensive contracts to outside vendors are not needed at this time.

• Everything in our approximately $24 billion budget must be on the table so as to make buildings safe and ensure that no teacher, para, school aide or school-based administrator is laid off or furloughed.

Other city agencies must do their part. The job of our schools is teaching and learning — we cannot take on other roles. We need the support of homeless services, the health department, and every other agency or department.

• Finally, we need an honest analysis of remote learning.

If a tiered return to in-person learning is to be implemented, I believe it is imperative that elementary-aged children get priority for face-to-face teaching. It is at this age where the foundation for future learning is built.

The likely delay in school opening may give us an opportunity to get things right.

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Deirdre Burke,