It’s the First Day of School. Institutions Are Failing Our Kids.

At first, the novelty of the public health crisis was a challenge. Parents of all stripes knew how to wing it. Homeschooling? Make color-coded schedules. Kids feeling lonely? Have Zoom calls with friends. Include a scavenger hunt for bonus points (things I never did) Summer programs canceled? Scotch-tape together a summer of plans that resemble parents’ own 1980s summers (no need to replicate the dress code or hair accessories).

But almost six months after hitting pause on our lives, this charade is no longer manageable or sustainable. For so long, we clung to the hope that school would reopen in September; that things would return to normal or as close to normal as possible; that we could return a semblance of childhood back to our kids.

In my own New York, while the Mayor and Department of Education engaged in testosterone-fueled ego battles with the United Federation of Teachers, public school families were left with unsettling decisions and endless questions.

Unlike many families, NYC families are choosing between 100% remote learning (no in-school building learning) or hybrid learning (1-2 days in school building combined with remote instruction). Schools may shut down immediately if Covid cases rise, once again with little notice—a repeat from last spring. And for families whose only option is 100% remote learning, we don’t know at what point a school district will revisit the idea of in-school building learning.

Regardless of the learning model, securing child care is a full-time job in itself. Those at home may struggle to support their school-aged children’s learning while taking care of younger children. Those working from home are simultaneously choosing between completing their own work and helping their children manage remote instruction. And what about the parents who are also teachers, or essential workers? When does it become too much already?

What about the quality and effectiveness of the ventilation systems in the school buildings? Do windows that open qualify as a competent and safe ventilation system? What if the windows cannot be opened? What if there are no windows? And why are these issues only being addressed so close to the start of the school year?

Most importantly, how do we tell our kids that we’re scared school might not be safe? It’s difficult to finesse the answers when a question like, “what will the first day of school be like?” from our kids becomes a riddle. My heart goes out to parents of kindergartners whose first-ever school experience may be perforated with inconsistent schedules, virtual orientation and constant face mask reminders. Likewise, it’s an arduous decision for parents of kids at independent schools and parents of college students whose health and safety may become compromised in favor of maximizing tuition dollars. All families face the challenge of how to best demonstrate support and compassion towards their school community of principals, teachers and staff.

When the previous school year ended with a whimper, I assured myself that  September would bring a fresh start, a reboot. Sadly, I cannot hide my disappointment in the system from my children. I do not believe that the health and safety of our teachers, staff, and students are being prioritized, that the institutions responsible for their well-being do not have their best interests at heart. My promise—that sheltering-in-place all cozy and compact in our Harlem apartment would be a real adventure, with an ending— is now broken.

I was able to adapt in the spring because I, too, believed in educational institutions, believed that someone would come up with a plan that would help us be safe. I was a person who could wing it; that person is gone.

Sharon Meiri Fox, MPA, lives in Harlem. She is a fundraiser in the medical sciences working from home while she and her spouse take turns schooling their boys.


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