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By JULIE RIDGE

I understand that parents, teachers, administrators, janitors, security guards are all justifiably concerned about returning to our low-ceilinged, poorly ventilated school rooms. I’ve carefully read the five-part multi-model, some-days-in, some-days-remote, and rotating-days plan. The intricacies boggle the mind. These models don’t address parents who have to work full-time. Or parents with more than one child in different schools. Or our kids without computers or WiFi, and those with special needs. How are teachers going to teach one session in the classroom and simultaneously teach their remote class? The path the city has selected is fraught with pitfalls. There must be a better, safer way.

“Remote learning – part-time or full-time – is not working. We must get our children back in school.”

A wise school administrator friend of mine said: “Going to school is not about curriculum. Going to school is about teaching children how to learn, how to think critically, and how to socialize. Going to school is about making friends.” This cannot be accomplished with remote learning. Remote learning – part-time or full-time – is not working. We must get our children back in school.

When our hospitals overflowed with COVID-19 patients in March, all of New York State pulled together to find other places to care for the sick: the Javits Center, college dorm rooms, “pop-up” hospitals in parks – anywhere and everywhere a bed could be placed. More medical care staff was needed, so students were graduated early, retirees came out of retirement, help came from far and near. We managed the crisis and met the need.

It is time to do the same for our children. Instead of cramming all of them into our traditional schoolrooms, some here, some there, we must find other spaces. Each day our Broadway theaters, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and Radio City Music Hall sit empty. Broadway houses and performance centers have excellent ventilation, high ceilings, stage space, lobby space, shop spaces downstairs. These spaces could become home to thousands of students. The Broadway League might provide space at reduced cost or donate spaces – some income is better than no income. And there are no people like show people.

My proposal is to begin with a pilot program in the NYC District 2 schools – the heart of the Theater District. Place the 25% to 33% of the children who will safely fit back in their classrooms, with socially distanced desks in plastic cubicles, wearing masks, utilizing the safety protocols carefully laid out by our public health officials. Keep the children in the same classroom all day, five days a week, and have the teachers rotate from room to room, meaning less cleaning, less hall traffic, and greater safety.

“Do the same thing we did with medical personnel: graduate teachers early, bring back retirees.”

Put the rest of the children in our theaters. Sure, we’ll need more teachers and administrators to work in the new spaces. So do the same thing we did with medical personnel: graduate teachers early, bring back retirees, use the hundreds of teaching artists already vetted by the DOE from existing programs like the ones at the Roundabout Theatre and Lincoln Center.

Negotiate with the DOE to vet our stage hands so they can teach shop, our dressers and costumers so they can teach design and dress-making, make-up and hair artists to teach salon and beauty skills. We can use this opportunity to educate thousands of kids who are not college-bound to be job ready when they graduate high school, while putting thousands of entertainment industry professionals back to work.

Someone will have to escort the children to their new “classroom seats” and monitor them as they go to the bathroom. We have hundreds of out-of-work union ushers and ticket takers who are getting hungrier each day. Put them back to work. They don’t need to be vetted by the DOE – they’re employees of the theaters. Utilize existing programs like the Broadway Teaching Group and bring professional actors to the students for special programs. Let our next generation fall in love with theater up close and personal.

The fall semester is minutes away. While the multi-model plan is being tested, please entertain the idea of this pilot plan in District 2 now. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Can you imagine, 20 years from now, our kids telling their kids: “Oh yeah, I grew up in the age of COVID-19 and spent the second, or eighth, or senior year learning in a Broadway theater. It was the best year ever!” Be creative, let learning be fun again. Build Back Better. Let the lights on Broadway burn bright.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Ridge is a parent, active member of the theater community, and psychiatric social worker. She lives in the heart of the Theater District, “marble-rolling distance from Times Square.”