I Teach in New York City’s Public School System, and I’m Afraid

A teaching artist’s dilemma with NYC’s decision to keep schools open

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Update: Mayor de Blasio has ordered all NYC schools to close indefinitely starting Monday, March 16.

I am a teaching artist, which means I facilitate short-term art projects in schools. I love my job. I constantly get to meet amazing kids and champion educators. I get to watch students express themselves while learning tons of new skills. I get to see the guts of a variety of public schools while working with an incredibly diverse population.

Currently, I am placed in four schools across Brooklyn. I teach around 330 students per week, and am exposed to potentially 2,900 students each week.

I am not an expert on COVID-19. Nor am I an expert on poverty, and the impact that closing schools would have on struggling families and the health care system. I’m not worried about my own health; if I got the virus, statistically I have a very good chance of surviving.

What worries me is that I might not know I’m carrying it. What if I’m spreading it around in schools, and therefore in my community?

When I became a teaching artist in January, I knew I was taking a leap of faith: residencies are not always guaranteed, and I lost the benefits associated with my (former) full-time job. But being a teaching artist affords me the time and flexibility to work on my own creative endeavors — something that I have eternally longed for and am finally honoring.

When you’re a teaching artist, you work for organizations that partner with districts and place you in schools. Being a teaching artist does not provide me with paid sick time (eventually it will compensate me for one hour of sick time per 80 hours that I work), nor does it give me paid time off. For instance, during mid-winter break, I was not seeing students so I was not getting paid.

One organization I work for recently sent out an email offering us two weeks of paid time off if schools close or if we feel uncomfortable teaching, as well as a plan for compensating us for unfinished residencies.

Another stated that they were going to cross that bridge if they come to it.

When I think about my bank accounts and what will happen if schools close, or if I choose to stay home — even if I got compensated for those two weeks — I feel sick (be sure, it’s not in that corona way). When I think about all of the children who might be getting exposed and/or propagating the virus, I feel sick too (again, no fever with this kind of sick).

Then I try to wrap my brain around poverty, and what will become of the families who struggle to put meals on the table on a daily basis and rely on the free breakfasts and lunches that NYC public schools provide.

Some 1,236,000 children have parents who lack secure employment in New York State. 803,000 are living in poverty, and 1,397,000 children are in single-parent families (source: The Annie E. Kasey Foundation).

The numbers are staggering.

In my hometown of Seattle, public schools are officially closed, and meal pick-up sites are popping up across multiple districts. Could this be a model for NYC? There are enough schools in the city that if each one set up a meal pick-up site, all hungry children could come and eat. If kids are usually traveling long distances to get to their school, they could go to a site that is closer to home. (If schools close, I will volunteer to help out with this in any way that I can; please reach out to me if you are coordinating such an effort.)

Still, this doesn’t address the other big reason that NYC officials have decided to keep schools open: health-care workers might have to stay home to take care of their kids, and based on how things are going, we’re going to need every health-care worker we’ve got.

At the time of writing, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo is calling on NYC mayor Bill de Blasio to come up with a closure plan within 24 hours that addresses both childcare and food.

In the meantime, I’m on standby, unsure if I’ll report to my residency tomorrow — whether or not schools remain open.

What are your thoughts on school closures? Please comment and start a conversation!

Writer, artist, teacher, seeker. Learn more at https://www.innervisionsstudios.com/

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