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Back from Florida—To Stay?

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Back from Florida—To Stay?

A lifelong New Yorker wonders if the city can still be home. May 21, 2021
New York
Covid-19

A friend of mine used to say that the best words in the English language are “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve begun our descent into JFK Airport.”

That friend lives in Florida now.

For the last four and a half months, so did my family. There’s a divide between people who stayed in New York City through the Covid-19 pandemic and those who have left. Our family doesn’t really fit on either side of it.

A semi-satirical piece by Luke Winkie in the New York Times in March argued that returning New Yorkers should be made to pay a “resettlement tax” and noted, “I’ve never identified more with this place than I did in 2020. All the values I was taught about New York, from elementary school onward, came true last year: the solidarity, the saltiness, the stubborn resilience whenever outside voices declare the city dead and buried.”

We, too, stayed in New York all through 2020. We lived with the sirens in the spring, and I was on the frontlines of the fight to open schools in the fall. We were never going to leave. We had moved into our dream home in March 2020. We were going to raise our kids in Brooklyn and then retire to Manhattan. I had grown up in Brooklyn, my husband in Queens. Unlike Winkie, though, we saw a city transformed for the worse. People acted horribly. Mask-wearing became religion, not science, and people would scream at one another in the streets over it. Schools became irrelevant, and few seemed to mind. It was also the era of extreme virtue signaling, of “Defund Police” signs in the windows of multimillion-dollar homes in safe neighborhoods as crime spiked all around us. We didn’t love this New York. The “New York Strong” slogan sounded like a joke. For two New York lifers, this was the weakest New York we’d ever known.

In 2021, we finally decided that we’d had enough. We could stay through the pain and the trauma. We could weather the difficult times with our neighbors. What we could not do was stay suspended in a paranoid reality divorced from any scientific data and, worse, impose that on our kids.

My fifth-grade daughter’s school had been fully remote since the beginning of the pandemic. My sons, in kindergarten and second grade, were in a “hybrid” model. That meant they attended school two or three days a week starting at the end of September, except for nearly a month between November and December when Mayor Bill de Blasio arbitrarily closed schools because the city hit a 3 percent positive-testing rate. That rate, basically determined by how many healthy people decided to take the Covid test that week, cost my boys a month of already-limited school. Then school simply reopened, despite the rate not decreasing. No one said a word about how it didn’t make sense; we were all just grateful to have some school back. On the two or three days of “remote learning” each week, the children would get art, music, and, hilariously, P.E. over Zoom. This was not school.

My husband had professional reasons to be in Florida. In a normal year, that would have meant back and forth flights for him and some juggling for me. During a year of sometimes-school, I could not abide him being gone for days at a time while I played Zoom butler to our young sons. It didn’t help that all the news from Florida was that it was like a 2019 wonderland. People were sane! Masks were not worn in low-risk situations! Kids went to school every day!

If he was going to the free state of Florida, we were coming, too. I started researching schools in southern Florida and found a highly regarded one called Marsh Pointe, in an area I’d never heard of—Palm Beach Gardens. Assuming an excellent school would be overcrowded, and possibly limited by Covid from accepting new students, I emailed the principal. Might she have space in her school for our three kids?

I received a jovial email in return: “Yes we have room. Actually we are a public school and do not have any limits on how many students we enroll. Good luck with your move . . . that’s a big one! Call me when you get down here or email me with any questions that you think of.”

I texted the line“Actually we are a public school and do not have any limits on how many students we enroll” to many friends who are parents in the New York City school system. In New York, it’s normal for parents to fret that their child will not get a spot in their zoned school due to overcrowding. The idea that of course we have space— we’re a public school—is a foreign one.

We arrived on New Year’s Day. About 90 minutes north of Miami, between the Bentley parade of Palm Beach island and the beaches of Jupiter, sits Palm Beach Gardens. It’s an area seemingly designed for your convenience. Everything that had always been a struggle in New York is exceedingly easy here. There’s parking everywhere. Kids leave their bikes unlocked and people use golf carts for school pickup. Everything is seamless in PBG. The sun shines, and everyone seems happy.

It was an adjustment.

People back home would ask “is it like being on vacation?” Sometimes it was. I’d work from the community pool while palm trees swayed and birds chirped.

But the truth was that our time in Florida was the most “real life” for us since the pandemic began. We enrolled the kids in sports. The boys played soccer and our daughter played softball. There was no discussion about the kids wearing masks while playing—they would not. Masking outdoors was rare in Florida in general. In February, Governor Ron DeSantis posted a photo on Twitter of himself and a Little League team, no one in masks. There were some gasps on Twitter. Just the week before, I had watched my daughter take her own mask-less team pictures with tears in my eyes. Normal felt amazing, even luxurious. When my daughter’s softball team won the championship, the kids all hugged. It felt human and real in a way that seeing other people as disease vectors for nearly a year had not.

Two months later, Anthony Fauci said, “The risk when you’re outdoors—which we have been saying all along—is extremely low.” He had not, in fact, been saying it all along, but some people, DeSantis and many Floridians among them, understood the low risks and adjusted their behavior accordingly. New Yorkers largely had not.

True, we saw moments of Covid derangement in Florida, too. There was, for example, the useless plexiglass around each child’s desk. On Valentine’s Day, the school asked for treats to be brought in advance so they could be quarantined before being handed out. Our community pool was open, the playground was open—but the fishing dock was closed due to Covid. There was a lot that didn’t make sense. But all of this was miles better than New York’s approach of ignoring any new information about the virus and refusing to move forward. Today, most New York City public elementary schools are open for five-day-a-week learning, yet middle and high schools remain suspended in the “sometimes school” model that Florida had shunned last fall.

Seeing my three children able to go to school every day was a godsend. The school itself was very impressive. When my daughter advanced past her math lessons, she was given harder ones. My second-grader had to do a research report on a famous person in history (he chose Anne Frank). Second-graders in New York are not doing research reports.

That same son learned patriotic music in his music class and came home regaling us with stories about the War of 1812. The school had students wear camo for Armed Services Appreciation Day. They said the Pledge of Allegiance daily. These things would be scoffed at in the New York City school system, where educators tend to pretend we’re not part of a larger country.

The main reason we pulled the trigger on a complicated, albeit temporary, move, though, was for our youngest son. Our older two could have survived remote learning. My husband and I might have dealt with a reeling New York. But our youngest son was struggling. He was four in September when kindergarten began. He had an excellent kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn, but he barely ever saw her in person. Learning on Zoom for a four-year old is not a possibility.

His Florida teacher understood that he was not at the level of his classmates who had been in school every day of the fall semester. Our son blossomed during his nearly five months there. Nothing could beat going to school every day. He had an exceptional teacher who worked with him and cared about his progress.

I had written about opening schools often through the fall. I was angry that New York City and other urban centers had so needlessly failed children. Seeing my kids in school every day in Florida, and knowing that kids in New York and other cities didn’t have this opportunity, made me even angrier. It was profoundly unfair.

“What happened to your hand?”

My kindergartner had three little indentations in his hand one day after school. One was bleeding.

“My friend’s sister scratched me on the bus.”

“Why did she scratch you?”

“I called her ‘a poop’ because she wouldn’t move over.”

Did I love that my son’s hand was scratched? Did I enjoy that he called a girl an, ahem, poop? No. But it didn’t escape me that this was a standard interaction between small kids in under-supervised spaces like school buses, and he was lucky to be having it. Kids need to learn how to engage with each other in real life. We used to understand this, but for over a year, we’ve pretended that small children could have social lives online. They mostly cannot.

I hadn’t kept our time in Florida a secret, exactly, but I also never made any announcement about our move. I would post pictures and anecdotes from the Sunshine State. I discussed my time in Florida on Tucker Carlson Tonight, on Your World with Neal Cavuto, and on various radio shows.

It was temporary, and we knew that. We were in a two-bedroom rental. We gave the children the master bedroom. Our sons shared a bed. Our daughter had a foam mattress on the floor. The kids went to afterschool at the local JCC on Fridays. We’d go out to dinner all the time. Life was good. We made friends and had many friends pass through Florida for visits. Florida became the focal point of so many conversations about handling the coronavirus. It was doing something very different than other large states, and it was succeeding.

We felt spoiled by how easy our lives were while our New York friends, and their kids, remained in a paused reality.

“Don’t make permanent decisions to a temporary problem,” I’d tell friends fleeing New York City last spring. But the problem no longer felt temporary. When our four-month stay neared its end, we extended for two more weeks, not wanting to come home. “Why don’t you stay? You’re so happy here,” Floridian friends said. It was true—but ignoring our life in New York didn’t make it disappear. We have family, we have a house. We had to return, knowing we had decisions to make and much to consider. Like a marriage, it’s hard letting go of the love we’ve had for New York City and of the vision of the future we had imagined for ourselves and our family. But Covid-19 had exposed things about our city that we could not unsee. Now we have to decide if we’re able to let things go, or if it’s finally time to move on.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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