Reopening Schools: Public vs. Private Inequalities

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“Basic Education briefs media on readiness of school reopening” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Elisha V

It’s hard to believe that almost a year has gone by since most WESS High School students stepped foot into a classroom. Little did we know while we were wishing for cancelled school at the start of March, that remote learning would indeed not be a fun vacation, but rather severely impede our learning, motivation, mental health, and social experience. 

Beyond the day-to-day Zoom fatigue, remote learning has resulted in harrowing effects on students and their educational development. Reopening schools has morphed into a politically charged debate, when it’s solely a scientific or epidemiological problem. However, reopening schools is also about socio-economic equality. 

While more than one million NYC public school students have faced a rocky year of first day delays, teachers union tensions, and the infamous 3% Covid-19 positivity rate which shuttered schools in November, a small portion of New York teenagers have been isolated from this: private school students. 

As with many aspects of school in which public education departments usually control, from foregoing Regents exams to constructing their own vacation times, private schools have much more sovereignty to decide if and how to reopen in-person. 

Yet why should private schools get to be open in the same city – with the same Covid-19 rates and risks – where public high schools are shut? In situations like these where public health is at stake, should private schools be more tightly regulated like public schools are? 

Private school students already have many educational advantages over public school students, with smaller class sizes, higher quality facilities and resources, and more individualized college prep, being just a few. If students going to private schools get to enjoy the advantages of in-person learning while NYCDOE high school students are confined to their bedrooms, the disparities in quality of education will exacerbate. 

In reality, private schools are easier and safer to reopen than doing so for the nation’s biggest public school system. Private schools have more funding, thanks to the hefty tuition fees, to ensure the building is safe. Renting extra space, installing top of the line air filtration systems, and setting up rapid testing for students and staff are much easier to do for one small independent school than for all of the hundreds of NYCDOE public schools. Still, The reopening schools debate is incomplete without addressing the regulatory differences between private and public schools. The in-person school experience is just one of the many ways in which money can undeniably alleviate some of the adverse consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Although the city has just this week announced that middle schools can reopen, there are still no updates on High Schools. But with teachers now being eligible for New York’s vaccines and the Biden administration’s funds to reopen schools nationwide, there is some hope for returning to the building at some point in 2021. Moreover, the learning losses and educational disparities resulting from the pandemic will likely linger far into the future.