Public Schools in Public Parks: Reopening School Indoors Is COVID Suicide for NYC. Thankfully, We Have an Alternative.

Ample, painful experience from around the country and the world has shown that reopening in-person, indoor schooling in settings where COVID-19 has not been fully suppressed leads, more or less inevitably, to renewed outbreaks of the disease. Political leaders of New York State and City have lately been in a triumphant mood – after the catastrophic and massively deadly spring we endured here in NYC – about our relative “success” in combating “the virus,” and yet, the fact remains that each day, still, in recent weeks, some ~200 to 400 people have been diagnosed COVID-19 positive in NYC, and the testing positive rate has remained steady since June at ~1%. This suggests to me that, at present, thousands, if not tens of thousands of people still have the disease at any given moment in the City. Unlike countries and jurisdictions that have successfully suppressed their epidemics – places where numbers like those for “successful” New York City would be cause for deep concern and renewed strict lockdown – we have adopted, if only be default and Federal malfeasance and cruelty – a strategy of “living with (so sometimes dying from) the virus” on the one hand, and waiting for a vaccine on the other. (Incidentally, this non-strategy is almost identical, in spirit, to our national approach to climate crisis: Wait and see, and count on a tech-fix, like a Hollywood deus ex machina, to eventually save us. That, or the superrich colonize Mars.)

In short, our regional success in the US Northeast is a sane and humane country’s failure, but even our limited success can turn into renewed debacle if we allow political exigency and economic distress to drive ill-informed policy choices that run counter to the obvious empirical consensus, namely that: Contagion occurs primarily indoors; risk of infection is proportional to length of exposure; aerosolized particles do build up in closed spaces and can remain contagious for hours after exhalation; teens do spread the virus, perhaps even more than do adults; contrary to some framings, not everyone in a school building is a teen (and both some teens and many teachers, administrators, and support staff are high-risk); and mixing of many people from many households is a clear way to facilitate super-spreading events and wide community spread. I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear to everyone that reopening in-person, indoor schooling is simply not a good idea at this juncture in New York City (or really anywhere in the United States), and yet, owing to structural realities of our anti-human system in the US, immense pressure has built to reopen our public schools.

Why? Because public schools in New York City, as across the country, serve as de facto childcare for the vast majority of working parents who can’t afford to pay for private care for their children. More extensively reopening the economy is simply not feasible if public schools remain closed, so just as toxic financial incentives – that is, reliance on payment of obscenely high tuition to fund operating expenses – are driving many institutions of higher learning to reopen against all indications of science and good sense, so too, fundamental economic realities are pushing us, once again, towards disaster with respect to public schools and the central role they occupy in our society.

Who can forget that the failures of Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to close the New York City public schools in a timely fashion which stand out as the clearest signs of the lapses in leadership which cost tens of thousands of lives across the five boroughs? Or that the belated closure of the schools served as the sign that, at last, state and city elected executives were taking the pandemic sufficiently seriously?

Thankfully, there is a clear and obvious alternative to indoor schooling that allows us to cut this Gordian economic knot: Outdoor schooling. Restaurants have moved their operations outside and, while outdoor dining has not been perfect; has created a huge amount of additional work for already hard-working restaurant employees; and has put employees and patrons alike at the mercy of the weather (and employees, especially, at renewed risk of infection), it has offered an alternative, far safer than indoor dining, that has allowed some return to “normalcy” and resumption of economic activity for hard-hit and much-loved neighborhood businesses.

New York is graced with a great many public parks. Investment in and upkeep of them reflects underlying racial and class divisions in our very segregated metropolis, but the fact remains that, between public park space and ample street space – which municipal initiatives (like Open Streets and expanded outdoor dining) have shown was always available for better uses than driving and parking – New York has more than enough space to shift all of its classrooms outside. Truth be told, as someone who works with teenagers, I suspect that the vast majority of students (and probably a majority of teachers as well) would welcome the opportunity to learn and gather together outdoors, and especially against the backdrop of a deadly, still-raging pandemic, there’s little doubt in my mind that the preference of a vast majority of students, teachers, parents, and community members will be for an outdoor schooling option.

Would this require adjustments? Of course. But in what realms have we not been forced into unforeseen (and often previously unimaginable) adjustments. Perhaps school could only be in session on good weather days, which in turn would create cascading challenges for all of the working parents (and employers of them) across the region’s economy. Perhaps investments would have to be made in collapsible, portable rain tents as essential components of the outdoor classroom.

Some critics may object that winter is not that far off, but in a rare instance of climate crisis working in favor of our menaced archipelagic megacity, as New York City’s weather has tended subtropical, we’ve seen ever milder winters, and the weather has remained mild (and suitable for outdoor dining) well into November and often even into December in recent years. Is it ideal to have class outside as the temperatures get cooler? Obviously not. But would bundling up be preferable to suffering renewed, explosive community spread and returning to the brutal days of the spring, if bundling up also permitted continuation of a cautious, data-driven reopening of the regional economy? I think so.

Leaders are meant to lead, not to devolve responsibility for school reopening to all the State’s independent school districts in a massive, dangerous gesture of washing hands of the matter. Leadership here looks like recognizing the dire consequences of failure, and the absolute necessity of contextual adaptation in the face of an exceptional challenge. It’s not enough for the Governor to risk the high likelihood that reopening schools leads to renewed explosive spread of COVID-19, but to do so in a fashion that leaves him plausible deniability and allows him to blame local incompetence or misjudgment for the tragedy. We need to avert the tragedy as the Governor failed to back in the early months of this year.

In short: Reopening New York City public schools indoors is suicide and would mean a death sentence for many New Yorkers (not least, the hard-working people of the NYC Department of Education, 79 employees of which have already died from COVID-19), but thankfully, we have an alternative: Outdoor school at least through Thanksgiving. It’s not perfect, and it’s not a permanent solution, but it would buy three more months for our failed national strategy of mass death and vaccine chasing to run its course. In the meantime, perhaps we’ll get lucky and an effective and safe vaccine will emerge from trials. Or perhaps someone will come up with a better idea to get New York City through its toughest school year in decades. No matter what happens, three months of outdoor school would be three more months of averted crisis and trauma.

In the meantime, we shouldn’t follow the dead-end down which other school systems have already ventured. Outdoor schooling, or no schooling at all, but indoor school in these circumstances leads only back to the nightmare.

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