OP-ED | Mr. Chancellor: Families want smaller class sizes and remote options, not a 6-day school week

"Our school community’s physical and mental health has been placed at risk by an indifferent mayor and DOE administration that packed students, teachers and staff into crowded and under-resourced schools," says Jonathan Soto.
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As a public school parent of a daughter who shares an overcrowded building with three different schools in the East Bronx, I am concerned by the incoming chancellor’s troubling statements about subjecting students to a 6-day school week, longer class hours and summer classes. It’s ironic he makes these comments at a time when corporations that care about the mental health needs of their workers move toward flexible scheduling, 4-day work weeks, and permanent work-from-home options. While it was encouraging to read his recent comments on remote options for parents, the chancellor should work to provide students, parents and teachers with a real choice of both safe in-person learning and a remote option for those who want it.

Parents will reject any Amazon-like model of high-stakes assessment and long school hours that create negative mental and physical health impacts on our children. After all, our kids are having trouble re-adjusting to school in this COVID era as evidenced by increased violence, bullying and mental health challenges faced within crowded DOE buildings. We can’t allow our public schools to turn our kids into commodities for the corporate workplace at a time when suicide rates are skyrocketing and our youth mental health is at its most fragile state in history. This month, the U.S. surgeon general warned that young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects due to challenges experienced by their generation, including the coronavirus pandemic.

I recently received an email from our school’s administration about a steep increase in COVID cases among students and staff within the school building. Parents continue to ask for clear guidelines on what specific parameters constitute grounds for school closures as positive cases continue to climb, yet little guidance is given as parents continue to send their kids into school with uncertainty surrounding their safety. As many of us predicted, our school community’s physical and mental health has been placed at risk by an indifferent mayor and DOE administration that packed students, teachers and staff into crowded and under-resourced schools. Change has to come and the time for it is now.

My child has an ADHD learning difference and my partner is immunocompromised, yet the mayor has ignored viable plans to significantly reduce class sizes by providing a remote option for those who want it. I’ve been in conversation with hundreds of students, parents and teachers in our community, and most would like to have both an in-person and remote learning option. Some teachers reported improved student engagement in smaller in-person class sizes last year, possible only because many parents chose a remote option and staggered scheduling in some high schools.

Common sense ideas like a remote option for those who want it can provide more safety through social distancing for those who choose in-person learning, yet our schools are under a system of mayoral control that denies our communities safe choices for our children’s learning. Parents should question why the DOE can’t reduce class sizes at a time when billions in additional dollars in federal and state funds have been made available to our schools. This is due in large part to the top-down approach of mayoral control of schools, a system where money gets absorbed by education consultants, highly paid bureaucrats and mayoral donors seeking to profit from bloated contracts that leave our kids with crumbs.

The pandemic taught us the need to prioritize a culture of community care that heals the harms our families endured throughout this challenging time. We want an education system that humanizes and centers values of interdependence, rest, care, health, restoration and joy. This is why we are calling for a remote option for those who want it and let parents decide when they’d like to send their kids to in-person school and when they’d like to keep them home. This will address the main issue of overcrowded schools and grant parents true control over their children’s education and mental health.

Jonathan Soto, who lives in Throggs Neck, is a NYC public school parent of a 10-year-old daughter.

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