A School Year For The History Books
It has been a year like no other, one that would have been momentous even without the unthinkable happening.
When we returned to our buildings in September, we had no contract, and we were battling over the thorny issue of paid parental leave. Our members stood solidly together, even if they were beyond that stage in life. Thousands of you wrote letters and rallied on the steps of City Hall. Finally, in February, our patience and solidarity paid off: We secured raises, reversion rights and much more. But the real emotional win was paid parental leave.
Just as we were celebrating, there were reports of coronavirus in Asia, then Italy. On March 1, we learned that a young woman returning to Manhattan from Iran was infected. Suddenly, a hot spot in New Rochelle. Few of us expected a bomb of disease to explode overnight. Yet, Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency on March 7. Your union fought relentlessly to close our schools. On March 19, New York schools went dark.
At the outset of the pandemic, you rallied for our children, plunging into remote instruction. You worked with your teachers to pull students together on learn-as-you-go platforms. Some kids came up with online pranks; a few thrived; many couldn’t without live contact. And some kids just didn’t show up. The most economically challenged suffered most, many of them simply lacking access to these platforms.
The health and safety of absentees worried you as much as their need to learn, and you tried to track them down. Some of you delivered laptops to children’s doors. Some helped launch the grab-and-go meal program. Many of you have found ingenious ways to acknowledge your students’ achievements and keep alive commencement and other coming-of age rituals.
Then, on May 25, the nation witnessed the murder of George Floyd. Following so soon after the shootings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, protests erupted around the country and throughout New York City. For the first time since 1943, our mayor imposed a curfew requiring that we remain indoors after 8pm. Our students needed to express themselves and they needed our reassurance. You did your best via social media and online forums.
You miss your kids and want to be with them again. But we fear losing more people. As I sit on the mayor’s Education Sector Advisory Council, I remember losing two bigger-than-life union members — Principal Dez-Ann Romaine and Assistant Principal Omara Flores. When I spoke at Ms. Flores’ online service, I hoped no one could see me tearing up. Her colleagues and family described a woman of stunning inner beauty, who had transformed more lives than most people ever touch. Listening from our kitchen, my wife Barbara dissolved in tears.
Because we want to spare lives, reassembling our schools feels like solving a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle: physical, logistical and emotional. To reopen in September will take skilled and creative programming as well as sufficient resources.
Leadership teams will address the philosophy of reopening, including the paths to healing and grieving for those we’ve lost, for irreplaceable time on task, for missed social life, and for fear of a new surge. To program a school for student success, even under normal conditions, takes an extraordinary amount of time. The DOE must set the parameters and issue adequate budgets so that you and your team can create a schedule that best serves students.
Even if kids resist their natural need to socialize, distancing won’t be enough. We will need access to soap, water and sanitizer on entry to schools, screening for signs of the virus in children and staff, and a bunch of complex health protocols. And approaching the whole issue of transportation seems like a bridge too far.
At the heart of everything, will be overcoming the emotional trauma of this pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, now compounded by a social justice protest movement that has rallied our city and the world. Some say it feels like we’re living through a version of the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression and the civil rights movement all at the same time.
Our children will depend on us to help them make sense of it all. Are we going to be ready to talk to them about this? That question has been eloquently raised by AFSA president Ernest A. Logan in his brief essay, Are We Now Ready to Have a Serious Conversation about Race?
As school leaders, many of you have led the way and have provided a safe forum for conversations. We profile three members in this issue who exemplify such efforts at constructive communication and empathy. Recently, the CSA Black Caucus provided a space for our members that included a discussion with Brooklyn Tech graduate and America’s Psychologist, Dr. Jeffrey Gardere. Dr. Gardere spoke frankly about the pandemic and race in America. He offered tips for discussions with staff and students and he stressed self-care.
There will come a time when people with no direct memory of it will be talking about 2020. They won’t know about it firsthand and they won’t know much about the finest souls among our first responders and in our schools, who made life possible. Those who walk quietly among us, changing and saving lives, without making history.
Things will get better for our students, for us and for our nation. As we head into summer and fall, I thank you again for your incredible devotion to our children and pray for your good health.
Mark Cannizzaro is president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.