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As Mayor Delays NYC School Reopening a Second Time, Parents, Students and Educators Disillusioned and Wary

By Zoë Kirsch | September 18, 2020

Teachers protest outside Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Oakland Gardens, Queens, New York. (John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Angela Torres, a parent of three who sits on the youth and education committee of her Bronx Community Board, found herself happy this week that she had chosen New York City Public Schools’ remote learning option for her 10-year-old daughter, Eva.

“This whole thing is one hot mess,” Torres said. “That’s the reason why I selected 100 percent remote from the beginning. I wanted consistency.”

New York City families longing for stability were left wanting this week when four days before reopening, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was once again pushing back the start of in-person learning for most of the city’s 1.1 million students.

“My bet was that we were going to get an email the night before, on the 20th, to notify us [of the delay],” Torres said. “But I guess [de Blasio] beat me to the punch.”

That punch came Thursday when the mayor, flanked by schools chancellor Richard Carranza and the heads of the teachers and principals unions, acknowledged a critical pain point others had been flagging for weeks: not enough teachers to separately instruct the 42 percent of NYC students learning remotely full time during the ongoing pandemic, along with the other 58 percent either spending one to three days a week in school with one teacher or learning at home online with another.

“There has been a pattern of the mayor’s inability to make timely and sound decisions,” said City Councilman Mark Treyger, chairman of the council’s Education Committee and a frequent de Blasio critic. “He is always the last person in the room to come face to face with reality.”

“It’s a shame we had to wait this long for the decision,” said Manhattan assistant principal Jodi Friedman. “It’s caused a lot of stress for families, who have to figure out their child care schedules for next week.”

As of now, the reopening schedule calls for children in pre-K and those with advanced special needs to return Monday as planned; elementary school students will set foot in classrooms Sept. 29. Middle and high schoolers will follow last, on Oct. 1.

“The plan is the right plan, but we have to make sure it’s implemented properly,” de Blasio said.

He declined to provide parents with the assurance that he wouldn’t change the reopening timeline again in days to come. “I feel for any parent that has to make new arrangements,” he said. “I know that people will do what they have to do.”

The mayor pledged to bring on 4,500 additional teachers, up from the 2,000 initially promised, but still short of the number the principals union and the Independent Budget Office say are needed: 10,000 according to the former, 11,900 according to the latter.

The DOE implicitly acknowledged that shortage earlier this week, when officials announced that students who had opted for the hybrid model were no longer guaranteed live instruction on their remote days, and that students coming to school might end up learning via Zoom.

Teachers said that the latest disruption increased their already-mounting anxiety and further eroded their faith in city leadership. Many of the city’s 75,000 teachers learned about the latest delay from social media.

“It’s déjà vu,” educator Ayana Goldman said of the mix of mistrust and fear she felt while watching the mayor’s press conference Thursday, after it interrupted a Zoom meeting she was having with her colleagues at S.T.A.R. Academy, a small pre-K-5th-grade school in the East Village.

It was the same feeling she had back in March, when she was teaching her fourth-graders about the importance of flattening the coronavirus curve as de Blasio resisted escalating pressure to close the city’s roughly 1,800 schools. That emotion resurfaced Sept. 1 when the mayor, facing a potential teacher strike, announced his first delay to in-person learning, bumping back the city’s Sept. 10 start date by 11 days.

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“I worry that people are going to hear this and think this is a win,” Goldman said. “Like we don’t need to talk about potential strikes, like we can rest easy tonight. Like this is going to make people feel like we’re going to be ready on the 29th.”

Teacher shortages are not the only obstacles to reopening. At S.T.A.R. Academy, Goldman and her fellow teachers hung signs from windows and staged lunchtime walkouts to call attention to ongoing problems in their building, including inadequate personal protective gear, dysfunctional thermometers and suspect ventilation in the nurse’s office. The city has promised the school 24 portable air filtration units, but Friedman, the assistant principal, wasn’t confident that everything would be in place by Monday.

“There’s still a lot of work needed for facilities and safety protocols,” she said. “Until we get the materials needed to ensure rooms are safe for children, I don’t think we’re ready to have our pre-K friends in the building yet.”

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A day before the mayor pushed back Monday’s in-person reopening for all but the district’s youngest students and those with significant disabilities, 16-year-old Emmanuela Sepetia told her mother that she wouldn’t be returning to Brooklyn Latin School for in-person learning.

Confusion surrounding issues like her school’s faulty ventilation system, which sometimes requires kids to wear multiple jackets at once to stay warm, influenced her decision to choose remote learning full-time, she said.

“I weighed the consequences and realized that I don’t feel ready to risk my life and my family members’ lives for the structure I wanted,” she explained. “I feel like my school isn’t prepared for hybrid learning. I just don’t want to put myself in that situation.”

When de Blasio delayed the reopening, Sepetia said she felt a surge of relief tinged with frustration.

“A lot of teachers and students haven’t been heard during this time,” she said. “I did feel like schools needed to be delayed. But part of me was disappointed in the administration for waiting this long to make that decision. And part of me feels like this same thing could get repeated.”

City Councilman Treyger, who first pushed a phased reopening plan back in July, said he also has “serious concerns” about whether the schools will be ready to safely reopen under the new timeline. At this point, he said, the mayor has “shattered trust,” losing much-needed political support in the process.

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“I think his lack of transparency is costing him allies,” Treyger said. “[de Blasio] needs [financial] help from Albany and Washington to get the city out of this crisis. The more he spins his wheels and continues to not be honest about the challenges we’re facing, the more complicated our fight is to get help from Washington and the state.”

Treyger said he thinks there’s precedent for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to step in — not only to assist the city financially, but also to override the mayor’s plan. He pointed out that families are facing nightmarishly complicated child care situations, and that legal violations could arise this year around the delivery of mandated special education services and high school classes not taught by an appropriately certified teacher.

The councilman referred to one school, where the current plan is to assign a gym teacher to oversee a chemistry class, while the educator certified in that subject tunes in over Zoom.

“[Cuomo] has an obligation to step in,” Treyger said. “This is his job.”

“I love New York,” concluded Torres, the Bronx-based mom. “I’ve lived in New York my whole life.” Even so, she said, she believes that it was misguided for the mayor to force the issue of being one of the only major urban districts in the country to reopen school buildings this fall.

“What are we trying to prove?” she asked. “All this time has been wasted — we should have been making sure there’s a robust virtual option.”

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