Writing in the New Republic, New York City public school teacher Annie Abrams warns about the vultures circling public schools during the pandemic, hoping to make remote learning a feature, not a temporary emergency measure.

She cites the recent comments by Governor Cuomo about the seeming obsolescence of “all these buildings, all these physical classrooms; why, with all the technology you have?” And, of course, his invitation to Bill Gates of all people to “reimagine education” in the state. She might have also cited any number of statements by anti-public school individuals like Betsy DeVos and Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, which supports every kind of school except public schools.

Abrams knows that distance learning cannot replace the person-to-person contact that happens in physical classrooms.

Meaningful education is built on connection, and fostering relationships requires proximity. This is what a classroom does. It’s a space for students to establish relationships while experimenting with being in public. And while we don’t yet know the details of Cuomo’s plan, there’s reason to be suspicious. The Gates Foundation’s top-down approach to education reform, along with Cuomo’s history of supporting charter schools, inconsistency around unions, and exclusion of New York City educators from the project’s council, suggest a deeply undemocratic push to defund and privatize the public school system.

American public schools—“all these buildings, all these physical classrooms”—are cultural spaces as much as they are physical locations. Cuomo’s reimagining threatens to flatten public education into informational transaction, turning teachers into tech support in the process…

It’s clear students, at least, understand much of what our political leaders can’t grasp about public education. My students miss the dynamism and zaniness that define a classroom of adolescents, and they miss momentary escape from their defining roles at home. They know what school is, both what they’re there to do and what I’m there to do with them. When I write college recommendations, I ask students to submit a questionnaire reflecting on our time together. Last year, one said, “Writing became something you encouraged us to do when we felt most confused or frustrated, times when I was most likely to give up on doing something. I began to see writing as a way to convince people about the things that meant a lot to me.” Reading students’ faces, peering over their shoulders, and responding to their frustrations and their breakthroughs is integral to helping them match tools to occasions. This sounds saccharine, but it’s real. Those relationships are harder to cultivate on a screen.

The privatizers are choosing a moment of economic catastrophe to pitch their siren call to make distance learning permanent. It is cheaper, but it is not better. As we have seen from the dismal results of virtual charter schools, online “learning” is horrible.

Abrams argues that remote learning can never replace the learning that occurs in physical classrooms:

The American public school classroom should be an empowering space. A weird, messy, vital place of experimentation and collaboration. Public schools facilitate that opportunity for students, to think both critically and imaginatively and to agree on some kind of common reality. In the best cases, public education helps students situate themselves among broader communities than they may otherwise encounter while building civic trust. It helps them become adults, slowly, clumsily, day by day. There’s no app-based replacement for that.

She knows it. I know it. But do the politicians know it? Their current plans involve slashing the budgets of public schools at a time when the schools need to cut class sizes to protect the health and safety of students and staff.

Think about the massive tax cuts of December 2017 that lowered the taxes of wealthy individuals and big corporations. Think about the corporate handouts tucked into the Coronavirus Relief program. Then ponder why our political leaders are about to cut billions of dollars from our schools and our children.