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New York City Sidesteps the Threat of a Teacher Strike by Delaying Reopening, but Will It Be Enough Time?

By Zoë Kirsch | September 1, 2020

Michael Mulgrew and Mayor Bill de Blasio Sept. 1, 2020 (Mayoral Photography Office / Flickr)

Averting a potential teacher strike, New York City will postpone the reopening of school for its 1.1 million students, from Sept. 10 to Sept. 21, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday.

The delay was the culmination of a month of increasingly heated exchanges between the United Federation of Teachers and the mayor over how to safely reopen the nation’s largest school district. Two weeks ago, UFT President Michael Mulgrew issued a school reopening checklist, which included a mandate that staff and students get tested for COVID-19. He threatened legal action or a strike if stipulations weren’t met, and UFT leadership inched toward a strike authorization vote this week.

Tuesday’s compromise still leaves New York as the only big city school district in the country planning to return to in-person learning, only under a new timetable. Teachers without medical exemptions will show up at school buildings on Sept. 8 to start preparing for hybrid learning. From the 16th through the 20th, they’ll check in with students about devices, Wi-Fi access and scheduling in what has been described as a kind of orientation. On the 21st, families who have opted into blended learning will start sending their kids to school, and remote instruction will begin for students doing distance-only learning. There is also a new, mandatory testing plan for schools: Every month, a randomly selected 10 to 20 percent of students and staff will get tested for COVID-19.

“The decision on whether to reopen a school building to students will be based on the UFT’s 50-item safety plan,” Mulgrew told UFT members in an email sent Tuesday. “School buildings or rooms that do not meet safety standards will remain closed.”

Families and teachers interviewed by The 74 said that while they found the announcement encouraging, they had a number of outstanding questions. Most doubted whether the added week and a half would be enough for the district’s roughly 1,800 schools to safely reopen on time.

Farah Despeignes, a former teacher and the president of District 8’s Community Education Council in the Bronx, was skeptical about whether the Department of Education will have made much progress on long-standing issues central to teacher and student safety — including ventilation and problematic school configurations — by Sept. 21.

“These issues will not have disappeared,” she said. “Maybe [the DOE] will have made dents. But these issues are real; they are structural. There are a lot of issues that are not going to be resolved by the 21st.”

Despeignes’s family is one of 360,000 that have opted into remote-only learning this fall. She found it somewhat reassuring that the mayor, who until Tuesday was insisting that reopening Sept. 10 was best for the city, and Chancellor Richard Carranza are listening to parent and teacher concerns.

Despeignes said she spends much of her time these days dropping in on school town halls held by principals in her district, where she’s noticed that many parents are surprised to learn that school reopening will look very different this year, given COVID-19 protocols.

Mike Loeb, a seventh-grade science teacher at the Urban Institute of Math, a middle school in Despeignes’s district in the Bronx, shared some of her concerns.

As his school’s UFT representative, Loeb has been fielding questions from other teachers about the building’s ventilation system — a position for which he recognizes he’s vastly underqualified. “I’m not an expert in that field,” said Loeb. “I don’t have an answer as to how we know if it’s good air.” He hasn’t yet received his school’s ventilation report from the UFT.

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Loeb is also worried about personal protective equipment and other supplies, given recent budget cuts. Teachers have been informed that they’ll have all the masks and hand sanitizer that they need for the year, he said, “but there’s little trust in the DOE that they’re going to execute on that. What’s going to happen come Nov. 30? Are we still going to have the supplies we need?”

Both Mulgrew and Mark Cannizzaro, president of the principals union, acknowledged the tight schedule and the challenges that remain.

The plan was among “the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in the United States of America,” Mulgrew said, adding, “It is not going to be easy. We now have another difficult road to go down: the amount of work that is going to have to be done over the next couple of weeks, just to get all of our schools prepared and ready to go.”

“The task before us is monumental,” echoed Cannizzaro. “It is incumbent on the DOE to seize this time in support of school leaders so that these additional days will provide a much needed opportunity to implement necessary safety protocols, program classes, and align all school staff towards critical goals for this unimaginable school year.”

City Councilman Mark Treyger, who chairs the Education Committee, said in a statement that the delay was needed but came without a commitment of new funding to implement the safety standards and meet the needs of vulnerable students and families.

Nearly 73 percent of the city’s public school students are low-income, 20 percent have disabilities, and 13 percent are English learners.

“What we have today is far from what we need to ensure that the inequities of remote learning are not perpetuated and deepened in this school year,” he said. “There are well-publicized concerns around how hybrid learning will meet the needs of students with disabilities, students in temporary housing and multilingual learners, among others. There are many unanswered questions around child care and how working parents are supposed to make hybrid learning functional.”

Since the pandemic struck in March, 20-year-old Sarshevack Mnahsheh, a 2017 graduate of the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the Bronx, has been helping his siblings with their schoolwork. These days, things are starting to feel a bit more relaxed for his family, he says. He tries to spend as much time as he can playing basketball outside. His younger siblings are excited to go back to school, he says. They’re relieved that they’ll get to see their friends and that they won’t be hanging out, bored, at home as much.

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Still, he has mixed feelings about schools reopening. “I don’t think students should be going back because of the corona situation,” he says. “Going back enables people to get sick — everyone from their different spaces bringing it to one place. It’s weird to me that things are opening up so fast.”

He hadn’t heard about the random testing, but he thinks his family won’t be very receptive to it. “Who knows how they’re testing, and what they’re gonna do,” he says. “It’s not something that’s immediately agreeable.”

Under the safety agreement reached with the UFT, any student who refuses to be tested will be required to attend school remotely, and any staff member who fails to comply with mandated testing will be placed on unpaid leave.

Students or staff found to have the virus must quarantine for 14 days. City tracing teams will be sent to their school immediately to do contact tracing. The presence of a COVID-19 case confined to one class will result in the entire class moving to remote instruction; more than one case in a school will mean that the entire school will move to remote instruction, until the contact tracing is completed.

Although Despeignes and other leaders in her district shared some concerns about parents not trusting the idea of mandatory testing in school, she thinks they can work to dispel that fear by raising awareness at the community level.

“Educating them and making sure they know — it’s such an important thing to do,” she said. Eventually, though, she believes, “I think parents will buy into it.”

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