Whatever it may look like, the prospect of returning to school is on the minds of thousands of New Haven students. The question is no longer if — it’s how.
Thursday afternoon, Mayor Justin Elicker sent out an e-blast to parents of students in New Haven Public Schools, airing his support for reopening schools using the “hybrid model.” This would mean students would attend in-person school twice a week while spending the remaining three days doing online classes. Students can opt-out and partake in only remote learning, but he reminded us that that is not an option for all families. The only risk mentioned in his email was the risk of children skipping online classes and falling behind.
Much of Elicker’s email is true — completely remote learning is not always possible or ideal — but the risk of reopening New Haven Public Schools is much worse than he lets on. Wilbur Cross High School, the largest school in the system, has nearly 1,500 students. Between classes, students often have to travel the hallways shoulder-to-shoulder as they move from one overpopulated class to the next. Even though the student body would be cut in half, classrooms are still small and often have poor air circulation.
NHPS still has another problem: funding. As a lifelong NHPS student, I’ve experienced the impacts of their funding, or lack thereof, my entire educational career. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many school bathrooms were rarely equipped with soap. Hand sanitizer, paid for by teachers at the beginning of the year, quickly ran out and was not replaced. There has been a paper shortage for years. Chairs, printers, toilets and blinds break and are not replaced. In one of my classrooms, there is a hole in the wall. Sure, these could all be blamed on negligence, but that isn’t helping the district’s case. I don’t trust a school system that can’t even fill bathrooms with soap to be able to properly sanitize and readjust schools in a pandemic.
One could argue that while the risk is great, it may be justified — online learning is significantly harder and provides just as many if not more obstacles. They’re right. Remote learning comes with its own plethora of problems, from troublesome internet connections to unstable home situations. However, in the short time that learning was moved online, many solutions cropped up. Xfinity offered free WiFi to low-income students, and many schools provided Chromebooks to students who didn’t have a device of their own. While this is far from ideal, it is much safer than attempting to bring thousands of students back into schools.
The hybrid model would also take a significant toll on teachers. It would require them to teach each class twice a day- once online and once in-person. Is overworking already underpaid teachers the correct response to this pandemic? Though teachers seemed to struggle using online platforms to teach, there is still time before September to provide training. The money that might be used to loosely — and thus ineffectively — enforce social distancing could instead go to making remote learning as engaging and beneficial as possible.
If billion-dollar universities are struggling to bring adults back to their campuses, how is NHPS planning to do it with children? Returning to school in a pandemic will heavily worsen a situation that is already declining. New Haveners, which make up one of the poorest cities in Connecticut are not equipped to handle the toll that COVID-19 would take on their families. While bringing kids back to school may work at New Haven’s private schools who will have the funding to keep them safe, it is not an option for New Haven Public Schools.