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74 Interview: NYC Council Member Mark Treyger on 11 Unknowns in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Reopening Plan

By Zoë Kirsch | August 24, 2020

Mark Treyger (New York City Council / flickr)

See previous 74 interviews, including former U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights Catherine Lhamon, Indiana educator Earl Phalen and former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King. The full archive is right here.

Updated, Aug. 27: City Councilman Mark Treyger called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo Wednesday to force New York City to delay the Sept. 10 start of in-person learning, saying the city is not ready to do so safely.

Sept. 10. It’s a date lingering in the minds of many New Yorkers, the day the city is scheduled to become the only major district in the nation to reopen its schools for in-person learning.

That plan has prompted increasing backlash from public figures. So far, leaders from the city teachers union, principals union and nurses union have all urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to delay the first day of school until the city can gather the financial resources required for a safe reopening.

On Aug. 18, a group of principals, independent of their union, joined in, emailing de Blasio a written plea. On Aug. 19, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew released a health and safety checklist, warning of a lawsuit or strike if the city doesn’t comply.

City Councilman Mark Treyger of Brooklyn has been one of the plan’s most persistent critics. In July, he published a proposal advancing a more cautious approach. On Wednesday, he and 30 other council members addressed a letter to the mayor and the city Department of Education, calling attention to the “far too many unanswered questions” remaining. A former high school history teacher, Treyger is the council Education Committee chair and a member of the city’s budget negotiations team. The 74 spoke with him about his plan, and about 11 unknowns he called out in the mayor’s proposal. Those are flagged in boldface below.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: What are you hearing these days from students, teachers and families?

Mark Treyger: Teachers and parents want clarity. They want to know: What is the plan, is it funded, is it operational? Parents want to make sure that where they’re sending their kids is safe and supportive. Principals have said to me, “Mark, I want to come back when I know that I have the adequate staff to get this right and I know that I have the resources to keep my buildings clean every night.”

The theme is that when they ask questions of their superiors, the response is, “Guidance forthcoming.” That’s been the theme of this entire reopening under the mayor: “Guidance forthcoming.”

In a time of crisis, New Yorkers want transparency, someone to be straightforward with them. I can tell you the city is running out of money very quickly. The mayor is preparing memos to agencies, including the city Department of Education, to prepare for layoffs imminently.

This morning (Aug. 17), the mayor announced the imminent threat of layoffs and reduction of city services, unless the state helps the city with borrowing authority. There are so many contradictions when the mayor says, “We can safely reopen. But I have to lay off staff in the school system needed to operationalize the plan.”

There’s an expression that “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” [The mayor and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza] are winging it. They’re not even shy about it. There’s no cutting corners when it comes to the safety of kids and staff.

When did you start brainstorming your own proposal? 

It was back in June, during budget negotiations. I spoke to principals; I spoke with a couple of school superintendents. I was on a Zoom call with an infectious-disease doctor, Dr. Celine Gounder, who backed up the research I was seeing. I spoke to parents in my district and beyond, and to Advocates for Children.

I was going to release the plan in early July, but then we got word that the state was on the verge of releasing its guidance to reopen schools. That led to a delay because my staff and I wanted to read it carefully, and we did, and it was consistent with many of the things we had talked about. In my plan, I make it clear that we need federal help — or for New York state to issue borrowing authority to the city.

In June, the mayor approached Gov. Andrew Cuomo about borrowing authority, but Cuomo didn’t bite. He asked again in early August. How much room is there now for progress on that front?

I want to chalk up June to internal politics between Albany and City Hall, which is unfortunate during a time of crisis, when egos get in the way of doing what’s right.

Now, we’re staring down September. I knew about these challenges back in June, which is why I fought to prioritize the school budget.

But the state Health Department released their reopening guidance for schools later in July, after the budget was passed. In that guidance are more requirements for schools. For example, to do deep cleaning and disinfecting every night, as opposed to once a week.

So now, the rubber meets the road. The governor and the mayor have to face the public and answer to parents and educators. Is the government doing enough to keep kids and staff safe? Are schools truly ready for in-person learning by early September? At this time, I argue they are not.

To your knowledge, has the mayor asked the governor to issue borrowing authority since June?

I am told there are conversations happening again between the city and state.

If de Blasio can’t get borrowing authority from the governor, what options does he have?

These are some worst-case scenarios: By October, the city will just be flat-out broke. I am told that the mayor has tried to engage with the municipal labor organizations about where they could find savings.

How is your proposal different from the mayor’s plan?

We’re the largest school system in the country. We’re still in a pandemic. If you bring everyone back at the same time, you increase the risk of exposure, which will lead to more school shutdowns and more disruption to instruction, and to our city’s safety net.

There are children who have regressed because of remote learning. It is extremely painful, and that’s why we have to work with a greater sense of urgency, to be more expeditious in getting this right. I believe in a phased-in approach, following the science.

I believe in an approach that prioritizes early childhood and elementary school students for in-person instruction five days a week, with an opt-out option. I would also include children with IEPs [Individualized Education Programs], multilingual learners, children in temporary housing, children in foster care and children in unsafe housing situations; all of them should be given the option for five-days-a-week, in-person instruction with the option to opt out. High school would remain largely remote [so elementary students, and perhaps middle schoolers, could use that space].

Some high school students rely on schools as a sanctuary, a safe space. That’s why we need to use nonconventional spaces such as libraries, cultural institutions, YMCAs and local community centers to provide enrichment opportunities for students, adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. To give them an opportunity to interact with peers their own age, in community-based settings. To give them a chance for social interactions and to reconnect.

What other advantages does this approach have?

Many high school students took on additional tasks during remote learning. A common responsibility has been helping younger siblings because many of the younger kids have had difficulty adapting to remote learning. If you allow elementary school students to return to school five days a week, that allows flexibility for high schoolers to learn themselves.

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There are also reports from experts, including one at Harvard, that a hybrid model [like the one the city is proposing] actually increases exposure of students and staff to the virus. If you have a child coming into school on Monday, then going into a different setting on Tuesday on a non-school-assigned day — let’s say the parents have secured child care — that kid is being exposed to a different group. Now the child comes back to school on Wednesday. That could increase the risk of transmission.

Many working-class families — parents, particularly working moms, single parents — are facing impossible child care situations. Working parents are asking the question, “Where does my child go on their non-school-assigned day?” How will they afford child care on those days that they cannot send their kids to schools?

What questions remain about school staffing?

One that parents keep asking schools is, who is the teacher responsible for providing education for my child? Principals can’t answer that question. There is a possibility that someone outside the school will be assigned to a student for remote teaching.

If there are teachers granted medical accommodations to work from home, will the school receive resources to cover the in-person class? The response is, “Guidance forthcoming.”

How do principals assign teachers? If a teacher is working in the school, are they allowed — or supposed — to teach remote instruction during their non-in-person hours? The response is, “Guidance forthcoming.” Schools have asked the DOE: If there’s a staff shortage — or if there’s an inability to provide instruction for every child — because of staff issues, who is responsible?

A lot of attention is rightly being paid to the teachers and whether teachers will be granted accommodations, but remember, teachers are only one part of a school community. There are guidance counselors, there are social workers, there are nurses who’ve applied for medical accommodations and have been granted them. The number of nurse vacancies is very fluid.

I spoke to a principal in my district. They have only one nurse, who has been granted medical accommodation and will not be in the building this fall. [The principal] hasn’t heard whether or not she can get one of these new nurses.

If someone’s child doesn’t feel well, they have to go to what the DOE is calling the “isolation room.” There’s no clarity on who’s supposed to be with the child in this room. On the plan schools submitted to the DOE to be submitted to the state, it said, “Name someone in the building that will be the isolation room leader.” Some principals asked superintendents, “If I don’t have a nurse, who is supposed to staff this room?” One person said, “Just put someone there.” That’s how we’re planning right now — we’re just putting a body in the room. We have no idea if they’re trained to provide any type of health care.

So is the implication that these “isolation rooms” should be staffed by nurses?

In an ideal setting, that’s where principals would assign a nurse to make sure that if someone doesn’t feel well, that there’s a health care professional that can provide services. There’s now an expectation to have nurses in every building. The mayor has not operationalized that. Schools are in the dark — where are these nurses?

The mayor announced last week that he’s reached this agreement between NYC Health + Hospitals and DOE to provide nurses to schools. I do not support pulling nurses from our public hospital systems in a pandemic to go to school. I represent one of the public hospitals, Coney Island Hospital, which went through a lot during the start of this pandemic and already was experiencing some shortages in key staff. The answer is not to pull hospital staff; the answer is to hire more nurses, and no one has given me that clarity yet.

So the concern is that when the pandemic rebounds, those nurses will be needed in hospitals?

It’s not just the pandemic. We’re entering flu season. Flu season and the pandemic in a perfect, horrific storm coming this fall.

Based on the conversations you’ve been having, what else needs to happen for a safe schools reopening?

One of the complaints I’m hearing from parents is: It’s not safe for families to eat inside a restaurant now, so why is it safe for kids to eat inside schools? Why can’t school playgrounds and schoolyards be utilized for outdoor eating and events? That’s a very good question, which the mayor and the chancellor have not provided clarity on.

I also want to note the fight for better ventilation in schools. I’m a former teacher in a school that cannot support adequate air ventilation. This doesn’t just mean classrooms. It also means school cafeterias. School food workers are essential workers, and their voices also must be centered in this conversation.

I am told school cleaners should brace themselves for cuts. As of this moment, they do not have the budgets to do deep cleaning every day. One custodian told me he received a delivery of an electrostatic sprayer. There’s supposed to be a solution with the sprayer; he didn’t receive it. He has no idea how to use this thing. He has no idea how to even turn this thing on. It’s unclear whether there’s going to be training provided. I think it’s a fair question: whether school custodians and cleaners will receive any training in how to use new devices.

We haven’t heard what adequate personal protective equipment looks like for schools. Custodians are waiting for deliveries of PPE. Some school community members have started forming GoFundMe pages for PPE; that’s outrageous. And some school leaders are preparing school readiness checklists for parents — usually a checklist would be a couple of pencils, pens, a notebook, a folder for school supplies — now, they’re adding masks, sanitizer and Lysol wipes. Is the City of New York putting the onus on parents, and kids and teachers, out of their own pocket, to provide the supplies that they are required to provide?

How many masks will be provided; will they be replenished? Inevitably, kids throw them out or lose them, and you should not use the same mask over and over again. How often will they replenish hand sanitizer? I am told there’s a back order on Lysol wipes.

I was interviewed on a Los Angeles radio station recently about school reopening, and the radio interviewers asked me, “Anything you’d like to say to Los Angeles?” I said, “Hey, if you have any Lysol wipes that you could spare, please FedEx them to New York City.” Because we don’t have them. We don’t have the basics locked down yet; we just don’t.

What’s the state of the conversation around instruction?

My father is a retired District 75 teacher [the district for children with intensive needs], and I’ve been speaking with him about this, and there are certain routines that cannot be replicated now. So it’s a fair question to ask, “What will in-person instruction look like?” There are young children and kids in District 75 that sometimes need validation in the form of hugs; you can’t do that. One of the teacher strategies in terms of managing a class is proximity — walking around the classroom, staying close to kids to see what work they’re doing. You can’t do that in a pandemic.

I was a teacher. During class time, those were my kids, and I was responsible for them. But it’s about more than just putting a body in front of them. It’s about advancing an instructional agenda, wanting kids to think critically.

We heard about the issues with the lack of live instruction last school year. There’s no clarity around that; the mayor’s plan does not talk about live instruction for kids who opt for learning from home. There’s such precious time that’s been lost, in terms of providing training for educators on how to provide live remote instruction. One could argue that, back in April, schools were still adjusting to this remote platform. But we’re now approaching September. What have we done to provide adequate training to educators on how to provide live instruction?

We want kids to do more than just log on to an iPad. How do we measure engagement? How do we gauge whether teachers are moving an instructional agenda forward, beyond just saying a kid has logged on or not? We don’t even know how many kids haven’t logged on since March; we still do not know how many kids never received live instruction. I’ve asked for that information; [DOE] still has not given it to me. I’m being told that school communities with more resources had smoother transitions to remote live instruction than those schools without — because they waited months to receive tablets.

How can community partnerships ease some of the pressures schools are facing?

The mayor says he’s trying to provide child care for some children on their non-school-assigned days. I’m told the School Construction Authority has been scouting spaces around the city. One provider I’ve spoken with, who has been in touch with the city about their space potentially being utilized, asked the city, “If you want to contract with us to use this space for child care, are you going to help us with resources to clean and follow protocols?” The answer was, “We don’t know.”

These providers are in no financial position to shell out money from their own budgets to adhere to state and city safety guidance. If the city doesn’t provide resources for adherence to safety guidance, they might not be able to contract with the city to provide space. If they don’t have the resources, and the city is not providing the resources, then these agreements just cannot happen.

Sept. 10 is just a few short weeks away. How likely is it that the mayor will change his position on the reopening start date?

One bit of the puzzle that still has not been fleshed out yet is whether the governor has accepted the city’s proposal for reopening. Remember, the city had to submit a plan to the state, and at first the state was critical that the city submitted an outline of a plan and not a plan itself. They submitted additional documents, even though I argued that they were still incomplete and inadequate, but we have not yet received word whether the governor has accepted the city’s plan.

The governor is hearing from a lot of stakeholders that the city’s just not ready. He has a responsibility to not just be the arbiter of plans, but to give the city the resources it needs. It’s the governor’s own Health Department that released guidance on how to do this safely, and the state should not be advancing unfunded mandates. We need the resources to get it right.

Do you have a sense of when that will happen?

The state’s supposed to make a decision soon. We haven’t heard yet.

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