Eight big problems with New York City mayor’s school reopening plan

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has released a hybrid plan for reopening, but he won’t make final decisions until the end of this month. He has said repeatedly that reopening school buildings is important for students who learn better with in-person instruction and for whom school is a haven. Under his plan, students who want to be in school would go a few times a week and learn from home on the other days; those who don’t can do only remote learning.

There has been some significant opposition to the plan from various sectors of the city, including teachers and some parents who say the mayor has not set out enough safety measures — or explained how he would pay for them — to allow for a safe reopening of schools for most students.

This post details what a group of parents and others see as “dealbreakers” in the plan, and then explain what they want city officials to do before schools reopen.

This was written by members of a group called Parents for Responsive Equitable Safe Schools. The authors include Starita Ansari, Yuli Hsu, Kemala Karmen, Rhonda Keyser, Liz Rosenberg, Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, Tajh Sutton, and parents who teach in New York City public schools. You can follow their efforts on social media at @safeschoolsny, and email them at [email protected]

In July, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed that, due to demand, he would be reopening New York City’s public schools. In the previous month, the Department of Education had surveyed parents, asking us if we would send our children to school if it was safe. Some of us responded. We had no idea that the mayor, who has control over the schools, would do everything he could to push through reopening, whether it was safe or not — and that he would be using our responses to that survey as justification for his actions. We’d assumed that public health experts, not a show of hands, would lead the way when it came to making what could be literal life-or-death decisions affecting over one million school children and the hundreds of thousands of employees who work in their schools.

We parents are not the only ones reeling and questioning. Everyone connected to our schools — the custodians who clean them; the principals in charge of them; the community-based organizations that provide services or advocate for education justice; and of course the classroom teachers, nurses, counselors and others with whom our children spend their days; and our children themselves — we are all deeply, deeply concerned that the city is not ready.

The reopening plan the mayor presented to families offers two options: 100 percent remote (virtual) learning or “hybrid,” where students would report to their school buildings one to three days a week, with the balance of their days spent in remote learning. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) mocked the Department of Education’s (DOE) plan as slim on details (much of it is pictures and lists of school names), but he approved it nonetheless, tossing the ball and the accountability into de Blasio’s court.

Each passing day, pressure to move back the start date for reopening mounts. On Aug. 12, the Council of School Administrators and Supervisors, which represents school leaders, declared “an unfortunate truth: schools will not be ready to open for in-person instruction on Sept. 10th.” Michael Mulgrew, who heads the city’s teacher union, and who has been criticized for not doing enough to fight for teachers’ safety, issued a statement as well, agreeing that a return to school buildings should be pushed back.

In a press conference that same day, the mayor and Schools Chancellor Richarad Carranza insisted that schools would be ready, stating: “This ball game is far from over. We are going to make these schools safe … Parents can’t wait to get their kids back to school.” Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), whose district spans two New York City boroughs, asked on Twitter the question on many of our minds: “If it’s not safe enough for indoor dining, what makes it safe enough for indoor schooling? (… and restaurants actually have soap in the bathrooms)”

Why can’t most students return to school buildings?

We are parents. Some of us are teachers, too. School was a big deal in our pre-coronavirus lives and we miss it. But we also realize that school during covid-19 cannot be the same as it was before and that neither we, nor the mayor, can make it otherwise, despite how much magical thinking we might wish to apply. The obstacles standing in the way of reopening buildings are real and shouldn’t be swept under the rug; unless addressed — which is largely impossible given both budget cuts and the short time remaining before Sept. 10 — they are deal-breakers.

Deal-breaker #1: The level of risk remains high.

The mayor’s plan stipulates that schools cannot reopen if the city’s “percentage of positive tests [is] equal to or more than 3 percent.” In a city notorious for its income disparity, calculating the threshold this way (i.e., as a citywide average) does not take into account the wide variation in results among neighborhoods. In July, for example, there were 41 neighborhoods with positivity rates over 3 percent. Due to an uptick in one of these neighborhoods, Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, the city expanded testing and discovered 228 new cases and a current positivity rate there of approximately 7 percent.

It is unclear whether the city has targeted other neighborhoods for expanded testing. If they were to do so, they might well find positivity rates similarly in excess of the reopening threshold. As summer ends, and families who have been visiting hot spots come home and college students from around the world return to their campuses, it’s not unreasonable to assume rates could rise further. Barring sealed borders, we cannot escape our nation’s larger public health crisis. In addition, test result lags and a dysfunctional tracing program impede the reliability or usefulness of any data the city and state collect. In the interests of equity, our schools should not open if even one of our neighborhoods is experiencing a surge above the mayor’s threshold.

Deal-breaker #2: The plan is arbitrary and reckless.

Unlike plans elsewhere, the DOE’s vision does not phase in a small segment of students at a time. On day 1, hundreds of thousands of teachers and students will be suddenly engaging en masse in higher-risk behaviors, including taking public transit and eating indoors with people outside of their households. Groups of students walking through hallways, most of which have no windows, will break the rules for public indoor gatherings on a daily basis.

Deal-breaker #3: School budgets are insufficient.

Retooling schools to allow for social distancing and other safety requirements is expensive, and would be a reach even in more flush times. But recent city budget cuts, which come on top of years of broad-scale financial neglect from New York State, make it all the more difficult, if not outright impossible, for schools to find the funds to acquire equipment, undertake building modifications, and hire staff at adequate levels to make the mayor’s plan work. Even an all-remote option, while cheaper than hybrid, would translate into higher than usual staffing expenditures to cover the extra social-emotional and academic supports the pandemic necessitates. Bottom line: the DOE has proposed a plan it does not have the money to implement.

Deal-breaker #4: There’s no evidence school buildings will be safe.

New York City has over 1,500 school buildings, some of which are more than 100 years old. Many lack even elementary HVAC systems or windows that open more than a few inches to let in fresh air. Inspecting these buildings thoroughly, assessing what improvements they need to welcome students safely, and then executing those upgrades is a massive undertaking — and one that should have been made transparent to the public at every step of the process. In the absence of such transparency, to imply that schools can be physically readied in a few months’ time is nothing short of gaslighting.

Even some school leaders were left in the dark. One administrator noted, “We’ve had no assessment from an independent environmental engineer or DOE official. … At no point have we been given any scientific or quantifiable data about how the determination was made that our airflow situation is adequate.”

In general, the mayor and chancellor have downplayed the importance of ventilation, despite prominent recent reporting in which experts assert that airborne virus “plays a significant role” in community transmission.

Deal-breaker #5: Experts say Sept. 10 is too soon to open schools.

Union representing nurses, teachers, principals, and custodial engineers have all said that the DOE’s plan is not sufficient to guarantee safe working or learning conditions. In a petition, principals from one Brooklyn district asserted, “as of now we do not have confidence that we are ready to open safely.” The New York State Nurses Association issued a forceful statement warning against reopening too soon, acknowledging that while parents and children are desperate for a return to the stability and routine of school as we knew it, “Bringing people together in enclosed spaces, without the robust public health infrastructure nurses have called for since the beginning of this pandemic, will undoubtedly increase the spread of the virus. Opening in-person schooling could easily erase the progress New York has made, and spark a resurgence of covid-19.”

Deal-breaker #6: The plan sidelines equity.

It’s been well-documented that remote learning can be problematic for socially, emotionally or financially vulnerable children, as well as for students who are language learners or who have special education designations. Yet the plan the DOE submitted to the state essentially skips over how its various reopening protocols and structures will impact the city’s 250,000 special education students. The section on special education is little more than a page long, with few details. The DOE has also failed to acknowledge how communities which are materially more advantaged are better equipped to deal with deficiencies in its plan. Some schools are already tapping their parent networks to raise funds for personal protective equipment or mining their PTA coffers to buy shade canopies and tents. In other school communities, teachers volunteer through mutual aid structures just to make sure their students’ families, devastated by covid-19, can eat.

Deal-breaker #7: Priorities are out of alignment.

Under the current plan, the vast majority of students will be learning remotely. Those who select “hybrid” might spend as little as 20 percent of their week in in-person instruction; even in the least crowded schools students will be remote two to three days a week. And entire schools will go remote if they have to shut down due to covid-19 cases. The DOE has ignored this reality, instead focusing its attention almost exclusively on the planning of in-building logistics.

School leaders, contending with reduced staff and reduced funding, have been jumping through hoops all summer, compelled to write building reopening plans with little external guidance. This inversion of priorities has left them with reduced capacity to research and create the high-quality remote instruction that will figure so prominently for both students and teachers in the coming school year. A plan more grounded in reality would have allocated already scarce time, energy, and resources into preparation for remote, even as efforts towards a fully funded, compassionate, phased reopening plan continued.

Deal-breaker # 8: The hybrid model does not offer a stable environment.

For many children and teens, the precautions necessary to ensure a safe reopening, including wearing masks and remaining six feet apart, are anxiety-provoking and developmentally inappropriate, and they have the potential to create high-stress, heavily- and disparately policed classrooms that further traumatize students. Add in the risk that beloved teachers or family members might become ill or die.

The on-again, off-again nature of the hybrid schedule, coupled with the possibility of schools periodically closing when infection hits, are the antithesis of the stable, consistent environment necessary for healing. For too many children, teachers, and parents, returning to schools will be far from a positive experience, nor will it be the return to school that everyone is longing for.

Actions needed now

Though every day seems to bring a new deal-breaker, it is not too late for our leaders to change course and meet the urgency of the moment. Some educators and politicians have already proposed alternate plans, urging a phased approach which prioritizes access to buildings for the highest need and youngest students. The city would be wise to listen to Shayla Reese Griffin, author of the new book, “Those Kids, Our Schools: Race and Reform in an American High School,” who writes, “The truth is, schooling as we knew it six months ago is over. We are being given the opportunity to re-envision education in a way that works for those we have historically failed.”

We expect the governor, mayor, and chancellor to:

  1. Fully fund public schools and put in the extra needed for reopening plans. No safe, sustainable plan is viable otherwise.
  2. Lead with accountability and integrity. Be truthful and transparent leaders; create checks and balances including a dedicated covid-19 safety team assigned to each school that is made up of public health, virus exposure, and air quality experts and is answerable to parents and teachers.
  3. Admit that the testing and tracing infrastructure is not sufficient. Go back to the drawing table and study models developed by college campuses to test all students and teachers before school begins and regularly during the school year. Prove that you can rapid test and trace in real life and not just in your imagination.
  4. Protect the safety of school communities in all neighborhoods; do not base decisions to reopen schools on citywide averages that ignore individual Zip codes.
  5. Stop placing covid-19 safety in the hands of school administrators. Develop a comprehensive plan for addressing safety issues in each school and demonstrate to families how these are going to be addressed, including if that’s even possible. Schools need to have funds to partner with experts such as Joseph Allen who can teach them to measure air exchange rates and techniques.
  6. Make the call now to delay reopening buildings. With minimal exceptions (see #7), schools should stay closed and students, teachers, and staff should stay home to keep our school communities and city safe.
  7. Find the safest ways to prioritize offering in-person support to students who are most in need and most impacted by systemic inequities. The impacted families should be involved in the decision-making and planning of these services and opportunities.
  8. Create opportunities to build relationships and provide social-emotional support within school communities. Allocate money for robust mental health services made available to teachers, children and families, especially in Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities who have been hardest hit by covid-19.
  9. Fully commit to remote instruction. Use the limited time before school begins to make remote teaching and learning the most creative, meaningful, and nurturing experience it can be until it is truly safe to return to schools. Expand notions of what “remote” can mean, including in-person outdoor learning, with the caveat that these experiences must be accessible to students in all schools, not just those that are better resourced.
  10. Engage interested teachers in co-creating professional development. Offer a variety of sessions that are responsive to teachers’ needs. Train all staff in healing-centered, culturally responsive, anti-racist, and non-criminalizing practices.
  11. Publish the scope and sequence. The city’s Department of Education has not provided adequate information about a scope and sequence they are developing; however, we have faith in our teachers to create units and projects, and do not support a move to canned curriculum developed outside of our schools.
  12. Collaborate with community-based organizations to develop safe and creative options that support children’s socialization in small groups using outdoor space safely and effectively for ALL communities.
  13. Address digital and resource needs and inequities across the system. The city and state must: a) Provide access to adequate technology, including a laptop or tablet with keyboard for each individual learner in the household, matched to age group and needs; b) Provide free municipal broadband to ALL public school students and DOE teachers and staff, prioritizing public housing and neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty; c) Provide families all resources they need to help children learn remotely, including devices, books, art supplies, math tools, and even instruments.
  14. Expand regional enrichment centers. Share what worked and what didn’t and revise their design to make them even safer for staff and students.
  15. Acknowledge this historic moment and support schools in implementing the study of social justice across the curriculum and in each grade level. Connect this to social studies, science, literacy, math, foreign languages, the arts, and community service.
  16. Offer targeted question-and-answer sessions. Include time for authentic questions and answer them honestly.
  17. Use a phase-in approach for any future in-building planning, prioritizing the highest-need schools and communities, and following successful models around the world.
  18. Fight for a waiver from high-stakes testing and remove admissions screens so that schools can focus on meeting students where they are and moving them forward without this added pressure. Members of the Massachusetts Legislature just introduced a bill to this effect. This includes eliminating all city and district administered standardized tests (e.g., MAP).
  19. Treat teachers with the dignity and respect they deserve. Give teachers who live with or care for high-risk family members an exemption to work remotely. Listen to teacher voices beyond union leadership.
  20. Address urgent parent needs separate from schools. Step up and provide what our government always should have: a living wage, employee protections, free/subsidized child care, affordable housing, universal healthcare — all the things missing that are putting parents in this untenable situation of choosing between their children’s safety and learning vs. making enough money to feed and house them.

The Bottom Line

The New York City Department of Education should spend as much time as possible focusing on making remote learning a better experience than it was in the spring, expanding and improving regional enrichment centers where needed, and providing real connectivity and technology for all — something which our students already needed even pre-covid-19. Like the mayor and governor, we want schools to reopen. But not until it’s safe, and not as long as deal-breakers remain unaddressed.

In the meantime, we must keep the conversation based in reality and the school system focused on being responsive to the communities it serves, centered on equity, and grounded in health and safety.

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