Students have had a range of experiences with remote learning over the past 18 months, with some students thriving at home, others completely disappearing from the school system, and most falling at various points in between. Since last spring, when it seemed that vaccines could end the COVID pandemic in the United States, families and educators have eagerly awaited the start of a new “normal” this fall.
But the latest COVID spike, which in September led to over 2,000 daily deaths and critical shortages of ICU beds across much of the country, has once again turned school reopenings into a source of anxiety and argument — especially because children under 12 are ineligible for the vaccine (although that may change soon). But while some districts, including Los Angeles, are offering a choice of in-person or remote learning this year, many others are forcing almost all students to attend in person.
This decision is especially controversial in New York City, where the failure to promptly shut down schools in March 2020 was a major factor in allowing the deadly disease to spread. Throughout the following school year, Mayor Bill de Blasio — eager to get students back in school and parents back to work — promoted the safety and educational benefits of in-person learning, but the vast majority of families chose to remain remote, with Black and Asian students avoiding school buildings in especially overwhelming numbers.
This year, de Blasio is giving students no choice. But many parents remain concerned about the safety of in-person learning, especially because while cities like Chicago and Los Angeles plan weekly COVID tests for each student, New York’s plan is to test far fewer students — and only to test those who fill out a consent form. These fears have been borne out by the first weeks of school, which generated numerous social media images of overcrowded hallways, almost 3,000 positive COVID tests and the closure of over 1,000 classes. One week into the school year, the Department of Education (DOE) abruptly changed policy and announced that unvaccinated students in a class with a student who tests positive will no longer have to quarantine at home — doubling down on its plan to keep all students in school no matter what.
For months, a small coalition of parents and educators has sounded the alarm about the city’s reopening plan. Tajh Sutton, the president of the Community Education Council for District 14 in Brooklyn and the program manager for Teens Take Charge, a youth activist group that organizes against school segregation, has been one of the lead organizers of the #RestoreRemote campaign. In this interview, which was conducted before the DOE policy change on quarantining, Sutton says the refusal to create a remote option is a connected to the ongoing struggle to make the New York City school system democratically responsive to its majority of Black, Brown, Asian, working-class and poor constituents, who have expressed high levels of concern about the safety of in-person learning throughout the pandemic.
Danny Katch: Why should the New York City public school system offer a remote learning option for all students?
Tajh Sutton: Everywhere needs to offer remote learning because the pandemic is not over. In fact, we’re at higher risk because these variants are coming out that are even more contagious and deadly than their predecessors. So the idea that we would limit the possibility for safety by not providing virtual schooling and work options is counter to public health.
This is an issue everywhere, as you say, but New York City’s plan seems particularly negligent around testing. Can you speak about that?
There’s an intentional negligence taking place with safety precautions. As of now in New York City public schools, only 10 percent of the school population at any given time is being tested. Last year when there were only 30-40 percent of New York City public school students in the building, testing was mandatory for everyone. This year it’s not, and that is a direct result of affluent white families who want schools open at all costs, who are advocating that all of the health mitigation measures in place be eradicated so that there are no more quarantines and no more school closures, health be damned.
The irony is that a lot of the arguments for mandatory in-person schooling argue that it’s especially necessary for students of color.
Yes, don’t you love it when we’re tokenized? If we need something, don’t you think we’d tell you? And we have been. Black and Latino and Asian families and educators, since the schools closed, have been attempting to provide the mayor and the chancellor — both old and new — with demands and recommendations about what a safe and equitable reopening would look like. And all of that has been discarded so that we can reopen the system at all costs — so that we can reopen the city.
I understand that there are students — particularly students of color, particularly students who live in temporary housing or have disabilities or are multilingual learners — who need to be in person. What I don’t understand is why the entire system needed to be reopened to do that, when one of the things we were fighting for first and foremost was prioritized reopenings. Because we wanted those kids back in school as soon as possible, but if those children are in a school that is overcrowded, what quality education and services are they even providing?
As a longtime organizer against school segregation, particularly the racially biased admissions screening in New York City schools, do you see continuity in terms of things being done in the name of Black and Latino families who in fact are being ignored?
Oh, absolutely 100 percent! It’s the same individuals who were slandering Teens Take Charge when we were trying to get rid of admissions screens, who are fighting to keep schools open, who are fighting to eliminate things like quarantines and mask mandates, which is how you know that the safety and care of our children aren’t what’s actually their focus. Wanting kids in school is something I can understand, but not wanting to know if there’s an infection in the school? Not wanting to do everything possible to keep children safe — particularly children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated? That’s not something I can understand. None of them care about Black and Latino children, so they really need to keep our names out of their mouths.
Most coverage of people opposing testing and mask mandates is of Trump supporters. In your experience, are these people Trump supporters or do they view themselves as liberal Democrat types?
A lot of individuals in New York City who believe they are progressive are actually one Twitter argument away from agreeing with everything someone in a MAGA hat would say. And that’s a conversation that we really need to have as a city.
In New York City, parents of color — particularly African American parents — have long organized for greater community control against the institutional racism of the school system. Is the #RestoreRemote campaign part of this very long debate about community control?
I do think it’s part of that legacy. There’s an incredible amount of organizing that’s being unnoticed, by the mayor and also by the city at large. Most people don’t even know that this Restore Remote coalition and this organizing even exists, or that we have 7,000 signatures or that we were able to convince over 35 state senators and city council members to come out in support of this — as well as two borough presidents and the public advocate.
But the thing about these systems is that they are designed so that none of that matters. In a system like mayoral control, the mayor’s going to do what he’s going to do. So our next fight, especially with Eric Adams coming in [as the likely next mayor], is really going to be about how we put that power for public education back in the hands of students and educators and families and communities.
The individuals leading the so-called “keep schools open” campaign can make one petition that barely got any signatures and wind up in Vogue magazine. But Black and Latino and Asian mothers like myself, who have been fighting for an equitable reopening for 18 months — and who were fighting before that for public education in general — we don’t get shit.
What’s it been like leading this fight while being the parent of two kids you’ve been keeping out of school?
I would love nothing more than to send my children to school. This is my son’s 8th grade year. I hate that he’s not enjoying it with his friends in his school. But what I would hate more is if my child got sick or worse. Because I’m coming home to an asthmatic husband, an immunocompromised baby brother and a daughter who is too young to be vaccinated. And I wish that we were having more multilayered conversations about that, because you’ll find way more community members who live in a multigenerational home and who are immunocompromised than you will these individuals who just can’t wait to get to get back to work — especially since a lot of those folks have the capability to work from home.
When the pandemic started, I interviewed a teacher who said the city’s delayed closing of schools was due to its failure to listen to teachers and parents. Do you feel like the current failure to offer a remote option is due to the people in charge of schools not being in touch with the needs of most public school families?
Looking at Twitter and listening to the news, you can feel mentally unwell because the gaslighting has been so effective — particularly over the summer in terms of this idea of “get back to normal.” Seeing all these pictures of these beautiful little masked faces walking into school, you really start to feel like maybe you’re just overreacting. But then you see the COVID case numbers, you start hearing about even more variants, start hearing about the disparity in the vaccination rates across communities.
The Department of Education had a moral obligation to have a culturally competent conversation about valid vaccine hesitancy and medical racism, and create the space to change minds and support people in making healthy decisions. That did not happen. Who’s doing that work? Parents like myself, for free. Two days ago, I was at my church in Harlem virtually, talking to my elders and community members about ventilation, masking, hand washing, and how they can get in touch with their superintendent or their principal and advocate for their children. We’ve been doing panels since last year, and for that to all just be ignored because we are not white and moneyed is disgusting but also so unsurprising.
How is the campaign for a remote option going so far, and what do you see as the next steps?
We have a toolkit that tries to draw out different resources together that folks can utilize virtually from the comfort of their home to join this fight. What this looks like around the corner is really applying pressure to our new governor, because the mayor has made it clear he does not care. And I think as cases skyrocket, which they inevitably will, we’re going to see more families opting out of in-person learning, because now they’ve seen it firsthand. It’s different when someone tells you something and you’re holding out hope, and when you actually experience that classroom closure, experience your child sitting next to a child that you find out two days later was positive, and now you have to go get that rapid test. And so we’re going to see a lot more families opting in to this strike for school safety as the weeks go on and the numbers rise.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.