The Public School Challenge

The city’s COVID-related enrollment drop is jarring. Will missing kids return to the classroom after the pandemic?

| 04 Feb 2022 | 06:06

To grasp the scale of disruption COVID-19 has wrought on the public schools, consider this one number: 16,916 students have vanished from K- through 12 schooling in Manhattan.

The enrollment drop is jarring. In the school year in which the pandemic began, 2019 through 2020, there where 142,539 kids enrolled in public school in Manhattan’s six community school districts. Today, there are 125,623, a nearly 12 percent decline, according to preliminary figures released in January by the state education department.

No one is quite sure where they all went. No doubt some, particularly in wealthier neighborhoods, left town with their families. Others, switched to private or parochial schools.

State Education officials stress that comparing this year’s preliminary figure with the final enrollment of past years is fraught with possible error. But even if final numbers are not ultimately as bad as these, the downward direction is confirmed at school after school where dozens, and even up to a 100 families, have left, officials report.

Now, even as Omicron recedes and some element of normalcy is restored to the classroom, no one knows when, or if, these kids will return.

“I don’t think we will know until next September what the numbers are,” said City Council Member Gale Brewer, who ranks the state of our schools as a top challenge even among the generous offerings of post pandemic priorities.

The enrollment uncertainty would be a big challenge on its own. But it is really just an indicator of the profound dislocation of education in New York in the pandemic, even for those who stayed enrolled.

“The social and emotional trauma these kids are going through is really overpowering and it’s hard for me to teach students content under these circumstances,” Bobson Wong, a math teacher, told the education news site Chalkbeat.

“It’s been a massive disruption of unprecedented scale, with lots pf people working heroically to try to make the best of a bad situation,” said author Clara Hemphill, one of the most astute observers of the city’s schools. “Socially its been just devastating. The levels of depression and anxiety among kids is just really, really high. Particularly for teenagers the social isolation is really, really bad.”

“We’ve Lost Two Years”

Mayor Adams says schools are top of mind along with crime and jobs. “We’ve lost two years of education, two years,” Adams said. “The fallout is unbelievable.”

The fallout may well be unbelievable, but it is also still opaque. “It’s too soon to say how much learning goes on without school,” Hemphill explained, “and how much you need school. How many kids are learning arithmetic by baking cookies with their parents?”

The city’s Education Department has been conducting learning assessments to measure how far students have fallen behind.

Surveys in other cities suggest the losses are severe, and that kids whose parents are educated professionals lose less ground than kids from less advantaged homes.

But New York City has yet to publicly release the assessments here.

Teachers and administrators are reviewing these undisclosed assessments in each school. Some say the results are helpful, while others complain that the whole testing process is a distraction when so much lost teaching time needs to be made up.

What’s more, the educational goal cannot be just to get schools and students back to where they were before the pandemic, said Laura Zingmond, senior editor of Inside Schools, a newsletter published by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

“We need to acknowledge that even before the pandemic, and certainly since, there are always kids slipping through the cracks,” she said.

“Normal Did Not Work”

As with so many parts of society, the pandemic revealed preexisting conditions and made them worse. “Post-pandemic, our schools should not return to ‘normal’ when normal did not work for so many families,” the Center for New York City Affairs observed in a report on the schools. The old normal would mean perpetuating severe educational inequities.

“Families with the means to enroll their children in private schools or relocate during the pandemic exited the public school system,” the Center said. “This will likely mean that pre-pandemic disparities will widen further.”

So Adams and his new schools chancellor, David Banks, have to get schools back up and running while also making them better than they were before the pandemic disrupted them.

There is a risk that the transition to a new administration will waste time that the schools can’t afford right now, given how far behind students have fallen. In that light, the Center for New York City Affairs advised the new mayor against tossing out efforts initiated by Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio just to show he was doing something new.

In other words, fix what is broken. An obvious example is the system’s failure at digital and online learning.

“When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the City’s lack of digital learning strategy went on full display,” according to the Center for New York City Affairs. “Of course, districts across the country all struggled to cope with emergency forms of remote learning. But New York was especially unprepared because the lack of centralized strategy coupled with schools’ individual technology practices meant basic protocols could hardly be coordinated. The public caught glimpses of this along the way.”

Federal Stimulus

There are two bright spots.

The first is that for the first time in memory, the city’s public schools are awash in money thanks to the federal stimulus. The challenge will be using it wisely, rather than scrounging to find it, which has for many years been the dominant condition of public education here.

The other is more existential but possibly more fundamental, too.

“COVID has made us realize schools are important not just for the children who attend them but for the functioning of society,” said Clara Hemphill. This is producing more respect for teachers, more awareness of the relationship between schools and their communities and “tons more federal money,” Hemphill notes.

“That’s the good news. Beyond that, it’s all pretty grim.”

“Families with the means to enroll their children in private schools or relocate during the pandemic exited the public school system. This will likely mean that pre-pandemic disparities will widen further.” The Center for New York City Affairs