Syracuse, N.Y. — Taneesha Mendez spent two weeks in May quarantined in her West Side house with her four kids. She had picked up the coronavirus from her job as an aide at a nursing home.
The single mother told the 2-year-old she couldn’t sleep in mommy’s bed anymore. She had to gently push all the kids away when they wanted hugs. To stay safe, her mother and grandmother could not help with the kids.
Mendez knows at least 15 people who have been sick with Covid-19; three were hospitalized. She watched it kill nursing home residents.
That is why she will not send her kids back to school in the Syracuse City School District. Her four kids would go to two different schools, some on different days of the week. So that’s different buses, different classes, times four. If just one gets exposed, so many dominoes would all get knocked over again.
She would have to relive those weeks in May, when every sniffle, every cough was a question with deadly potential. Her son, Jonathan, became ill after her quarantine. She is not sure if it was the virus, or not. He was not tested.
“I already dodged a bullet once,” Mendez says as she sits in her grandmother’s driveway while her oldest rides her bike in circles.
Two days of school is just not worth it, she decided.
Mendez is among thousands of parents in the Syracuse school district who decided to keep their kids home rather than send them for two days of in-person education.
Early results show that 50% of parents in the district have decided to keep their children home all week. And it’s not just the parents. Syracuse teachers are worried, too: In a district survey, 75 percent of teachers and staff said they wanted to start the year with remote school.
This is in stark contrast to area suburban school districts, where 80 to 90 percent of families are sending their children for whatever in-person instruction is available.
Syracuse mirrors a trend in cities across the state and nation: Urban school districts have been slower to bring kids back into the classroom.
Families and experts say there are two things at play in cities: Parents are more worried about the virus because they know it. And city districts are often already struggling with old buildings and not enough money, making it harder to rise to the complicated task of pandemic schooling.
The coronavirus has hit Black communities, like Syracuse’s, much harder than the suburbs. In Onondaga County, Blacks are three times as likely to get Covid-19 than whites. They are more likely to work in jobs like Mendez’s, where they are exposed to the virus. And once they get it, they’re three times as likely to end up hospitalized and 50 percent more likely to die from it because of the longstanding gap in health care.
Syracuse families know the deadly path the virus can cut. It’s not just something on cable television.
And then there is the struggle of doing safe schooling on a massive scale of a city school district where resources are already thin. In Syracuse, there are more than 30 different schools and 20,000 students. So every question becomes exponential: Do the buildings have the right ventilation? What happens when a kid gets on the bus with a temperature?
It was these questions and others that spurred the teachers union in Syracuse asked the district to delay the start of in-person school until November.
The city school districts across New York, and the nation, are seeing the same trend. So many parents chose to keep their kids home in Auburn that the district had to delay its start. Rochester, Ithaca, Rome and Binghamton have also decided to delay in-person instruction. Utica is weighing a delay, too.
Urban districts across the nation have increasingly shifted toward sending kids all online, said Betheny Gross, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She said Syracuse parents are echoing what others in struggling cities have already decided: They don’t trust the schools to keep their kids safe.
“You have communities of families who were just absolutely devastated by the virus,” Gross said. “Where you have more Latino and Black families, they have grown quite wary of this virus.”
Gross also said city school districts struggle with less funding, less space and older buildings. And they tend to have stronger teachers’ unions. New York’s city teachers unions want delays.
So far, suburban districts in New York have rarely pushed to go slow.
“There’s this terrible discrepancy of the haves and the have nots,” said Bill Scott. He has a foot in both worlds. Scott is the president of the Syracuse Teachers’ Association and he lives in Jamesville-DeWitt, where his two sons attend school.
In Syracuse, teachers and staff have a pile of questions, the newest of which is a list of buildings that can use Merv-13 air filters. Malls are required to have the filters; they are only recommended for schools. Some schools in the city not only cannot use the filters; the windows don’t even open, Scott said.
At first, Scott and his wife thought they should keep their children home for online instruction because of concerns about student and teacher safety in Jamesville-DeWitt. But after talking with the union leaders and district officials there, he and his wife, a teacher in another suburban school district, decided it was safe for their teens.
“Those same challenges don’t seem to be there,” Scott said. The district that is next door to Syracuse’s East Side is also world away. The buildings are newer and there are more resources.
At least one Syracuse school board commissioner, Tamica Barnett, has said she is not planning to send her child to school because she does not think the schools are safe or ready.
Erika Edelstein, a mother of three children in the Syracuse schools, has also decided to keep them home.
“The schools are being asked to the impossible,” Edelstein said. “This is a culmination of years of underfunding.”
She is not confident the schools are safe. So she worries her two school-aged children will start school only to have it interrupted. And they could bring the virus home to their toddler sibling.
Edelstein also couldn’t imagine figuring out what to do every time one of the kids had a runny nose. Do I keep one home, or all of them, she wondered.
“I thought it would be more painful for them to go back and have school be so erratic and different,” she said.
Edelstein is the executive director of a nonprofit and her husband is a data scientist, so they have the resources to find care for their children or the flexibility for one parent to work from home. Still, Edelstein is not sure how they’ll manage.
“We’re really exploring every single option,” she said.
At mid-week, Jeff Leibo and his wife had decided to send their youngest, who is 5, back to the city’s Montessori school for the hybrid schedule.
But they couldn’t decide what to do with their twin 9-year-old boys who go to the city’s Latin School.
“I think a lot of families are paralyzed by indecision because all the options are bad,” Leibo said.
He said he’s thinking about choosing online-only for the older boys, but what would that would mean? Is it all videotaped instruction without teacher interaction? Or will the kids be in virtual classrooms, communicating with real teachers who can answer their questions?
“There are clearly a lot of aspects the schools haven’t figured out yet,” Leibo said.
Laiza Semidey plans to keep her 6-year-old son home from his city elementary school. She simply could not imagine sending him to school and expecting he and the other 6-year-olds would socially distance and remember to wash their hands. There were so many unknowns, she said.
“I don’t know how other people live, who they are around,” she said.
Semidey worries about the burden put on teachers who are so used to helping little kids with the things they cannot yet do: Tie their shoes, remember to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. How can they be asked to do that? But how can those things go undone?
She is lucky, she said, that she can work from home.
“That’s one less child that a teacher has to worry about,” Semidey said.
Sheria Walker has Semidy’s worries times six: Her six kids would be at five different schools. The oldest would be a junior at the Public Service Leadership Academy and the youngest, Walker’s grandson, would be in pre-k at the Latin School.
When she heard about the plan to send all but the high schoolers back to school two days a week, she immediately wondered: What happens if one is exposed?
There are five other kids in different classes at four other schools, on different buses. And then there’s her husband, who is a Centro bus driver. And Walker, who works at the Gifford Foundation.
“How in God’s name does that work?” she said.
Walker imagined a string of exposures, then quarantines.
“They are using these kids as guinea pigs. I’m not willing to put that risk and exposure to my children,” Walker said.
So she and her husband will continue to do what they did in the spring: flex their work schedules so one of them is always home.
She tried to be creative and fun, thinking up gym ideas, art projects and taking the kids outside. And then, when the kids who played instruments needed to do their lessons, she sent them outside, filling their Strathmore yard with drums, trombone, saxophone and flute. (Some neighbors did not appreciate it.)
Right now, the family has been given one laptop by the district for all the kids the use. How will that work?
There are so many unknowns to staying home. How will everyone get everything done? How will she explain this “new math”?
But to Walker the risk of going to school so much greater than the trouble of those unknowns: A family member died from Covid-19 and she knows others who became seriously ill.
She knows how it spreads, how it just takes one person in the wrong place at the wrong time. That risk is simply not acceptable.
“If one gets sick, we all get sick,” she said.