- Kathryn R. Biel
An Open Letter to the Governor of New York State
Updated: May 7, 2020
Dear Governor Cuomo,
For weeks-- actually months now-- I've tuned in to your mid-day updates, trying to make sense of a world in which reality seems like fantasy. Your voice, steady and even, fills the living room and changes the course of our world. It's funny, I remember trying to hear your voice as one of my principals streamed your press conference on March 13, 2020. My co-workers thought I was crazy that I was so sure you were closing schools for the safety of the children and teachers.
I mean, eventually, you did, when New York City's numbers exploded. Too little, too late, in my opinion.
It's never been a secret that you have no love lost for the public education system and the teachers of New York State. Announcing that in order to qualify for the 180-day waiver was contingent upon no interruption in distance learning was just one more example of how you like to flex on the teachers. An administrator said to me, "I can't believe that the teachers didn't fight not closing for Spring Break."
We didn't fight because we didn't have a choice. We knew that fighting that mandate meant losing tens of thousands of dollars each day of this cancellation for our school district. We were not about to do that to our kids. So we showed up. We logged on, weary and anxious. Needing a break. But we did it anyway because we are teachers and that's what we do.
I understand why buildings are closed for the remainder of the school year. I understand the logistics of keeping everyone safe and healthy. I understand that if we open up here in Upstate, where numbers are low and manageable, there is nothing stopping those in the Downstate area from coming up here, raising the curve back up. I'm not happy about it, but I understand it and will keep plugging along because I'm a teacher and a parent and that's what I do.
But what I don't have to do is sit here idly while you, the governor of my state, bully the education system and flex your privilege on us. Today, you said this:
“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms. Why? With all the technology you have?”
Has it ever occurred to you that access to technology is a privilege? That having a home with high-speed internet is a privilege? That having a parent not also working a job while trying to provide this education is a privilege? That having a home that is safe and secure and conducive to education is a privilege?
I am a school-based physical therapist. I provide federally mandated services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Physical therapy is very hard to provide through a computer screen. Most of my caseload is in Kindergarten and also has some form of communication or cognitive impairment. I depend on the parents to provide access and facilitate my services. But the parents didn't go to school for eight years, earning a Bachelor's, Master's, and Doctoral degrees in my field, pass the State Boards, complete required continuing education, and maintain a New York State License for the past twenty years. If they could do what I could do, you wouldn't require me to participate in continuing education and pay New York State to maintain my license. Much like if every parent could do what a teacher could do, then why do we have teachers?
You are basically saying that people are non-essential in the cogs of the developmental wheel since we have the technology. No one who developed this technology did so without a teacher.
Governor Cuomo, I'd like to invite you over to my house. I am fortunate enough to live in a safe environment with space to work. But still, you'd see cobwebs because even though I'm home all day, I don't really have that much more time to clean. I'm working longer hours, and I'm mentally exhausted from trying to talk parents through every nuance of what I do. Why don't you come in and watch what I do? Help a parent as a child has a meltdown because they have disabilities that desperately need outside help and all you can do is offer compassionate smiles and re-assure the parent, who is also now in tears, that they are doing a good job. You can help me document what I'm doing, how I'm modifying it, what level of support I'm giving, and what progress I'm making toward helping this child achieve the goals written in the IEP. For every student. Re-assure parent after parent and listen as they tell you that they cannot keep going like this, working and providing education. Of course, you'll have to move as I shove my chair aside, disconnect my headphones, and get on the floor to try to demonstrate to a child how to properly do an exercise. I have to wear the headphones in order to maintain confidentiality, as this is private information and I'm at home. You can watch me stretch my neck and take pain relievers because I don't have access to the healthcare I need to manage my neck pain while sitting every day at the computer. I'll get you a drink from the kitchen, but only when my husband isn't on a call. He works in the dining room, you see. In between our sessions on the computer, you can run with me upstairs to make sure my kids are doing their schooling. One of my children has special needs, and that child requires a lot more support than most of their peers. You can see how I bop back and forth between Google Classroom for my caseload and for my kids. You can sit with my other child as they cry, having an anxiety attack about an assignment they have to record and send in. You'll have to scrounge in the fridge for lunch, I'm afraid, as I only go to the store every ten days or so (I'm being a responsible New Yorker, you see), so the pickings might be slim.
And I have it easy compared to some. To many.
Why don't you go visit my co-workers who are trying to provide direct instruction with a two-year-old climbing all over them? Or my other co-worker who's husband is a State Trooper, working twelve-hour days, so she's trying to balance educating all her students, as well as her own three children?
Or how about going to a motel where a family of eight lives in one room with one cell phone to see how their education is going? Will you still think those children don't need a physical classroom?
I will say it unequivocally: distance learning is not sustainable and is not equitable.
I'd invite you to school, once we're back in the physical buildings, to see how it differs. But I know that our physical schooling, especially if you have anything to say about it, will never look like it used to. So what I will do is this: Ask yourself-- better yet ask your daughters who their favorite teacher was and why. It has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with personal connection.
I know you don't like the public schools. But don't rob an entire generation of children from that connection for a vendetta. And if you can read this letter, thank a teacher.
A concerned NY resident, school service provider, and parent
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are mine and mine alone and do not reflect those of my employer, nor do I represent my employer in any way.
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Telling stories of resilient women with humor, heart, and a happy ending, Kathryn R. Biel is an award-winning author of numerous women's fiction, romantic comedy, and contemporary romance books. Her latest book, Take a Chance on Me, releases May 21, 2020.