Credit: Contributed

The COVID-19 pandemic sent the world in a tailspin. The loss of jobs. The loss of lives. Employees obligated to travel to work because their job is “essential.”

Other professions have managed to make the transition to working at home. For teachers, working from homes poses a challenge. The connection to students is part of learning. If that’s gone. What’s the next step?

According to United Federation of Teachers Pres. Michael Mulgrew, the next step consists of a chessboard––with different moving parts––all towards the same goal.

Mulgrew told his constituents that it wouldn’t be a traditional school year. In order to follow social distancing guidelines provided by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, the number of people in each school building will be smaller than normal. Schools will have to house a lower number of employees and students then they’re used to. Close contact, if any, will be minimal. This is why, according to Mulgrew, school attendance will be on a rolling basis so that the learning doesn’t stop.

“That’s why we have gravitated to a hybrid model of learning in which students are in schools for part of the time and continue learning remotely for the rest,” wrote Mulgrew. “A team approach probably makes the most sense with one set of staff members assigned to work with each cohort of students. The number of cohorts at each school will be determined by how many people your school building can safely accommodate combined with decisions regarding the use of nontraditional space for instruction.”

New York City is usually entering the last two weeks of the school year around this time. Despite the usual end of schools sullied by COVID-19, the UFT still has to assist certain demographics.

Within the next two weeks the UFT has to determine what the summer will look like for special education students. Mulgrew said he’s working with the powers that be to come up with the best outcome for all.

“…[O]bviously as we figure out what’s happening with the coronavirus, which is far from certain, as you can see,” said Mulgrew. “But in terms of the fall I’ve had this conversation in great detail with our Chancellor Richard Carranza and our First Deputy Mayor, Dean Fuleihan and a lot of other members of our team. The goal is to get the maximum number of kids back into our school buildings, where they can learn best, but that goal is wholly contingent upon the health dynamics. We have three months until school reopens. So, three months to see whether we beat back this disease more, or whether we are dealing with unfortunately, a resurgence. We’re going to make decisions based on health and safety first.”

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced a similar approach to the upcoming school year sending a framework to the city’s education community of what the 2020-21 school year would look like. He stressed the importance of suppling school employees with personal protective equipment, school supplies and consistent monitoring of employees’ health. This school year comes with the expectations of being chameleon-like in its approach.

“The start of the 2020-21 school year will be unlike any other that we’ve experienced,” said Carranza. “We know students and staff alike are experiencing a lack of closure from physically being out of school buildings since March of the current school year. We know that we must have a thoughtful process to reacclimate children, parents, and staff to being back in school buildings. This means we must focus on the social-emotional needs of the school community while implementing trauma-informed approaches to teaching and learning.”

“Some of the ideas and questions being thought through are: Will cohorts attend alternating days or in clusters of two or more days in a row? Will some subjects be exclusively remote and others in-person?” added Mulgrew. “How and when will related service providers be programmed? Will some students get more in-person instruction than others based on their age or needs? These questions are challenging, but we’ll figure it out together. Remember this has never been done before.”

Despite announcing last month that summer school would be done remotely, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t been clear on what his plans are for the fall. All he knows is that there will be plans for any scenario.

De Blasio said schools “…[N]eed to be able to move on a continuum…It could be every single student back in school, it could be no students back in school. We have to be ready for any eventuality.” One of the mayor’s pet projects since he’s been in office have been universal pre-K and the expanded 3-K for All. The goal was to help all New York students, and not just ones from well off families, get an upper hand in education.

Becky Pringle a science teacher from Pennsylvania and vice president of the National Education Association (NEA) said that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the inequity in schools and society at large. No matter the state of the economy, you could count on inequities in the education system based on race. The next step, according to Pringle, involves tackling said inequalities head on.

“The reality is that the fight for the opportunities that all students deserve has always been tough, whether our economy has been in boom or bust cycles. The pandemic, however, has underscored the vast inequities in educational opportunity, particularly in Black and Brown and rural communities, that have always existed. 

“It is urgent that we address the concerns directly stemming from COVID-19, and also finally come to grips with the disparities in school funding that have for too many years advantaged a fortunate few students, while disadvantaging many, many others—particularly low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and rural students. These disparities were readily apparent from the very start of the pandemic,” said Pringle.

While inequities in education continue to be the topic of discussion, the inequity in policing of Black and Brown children has come to the surface. De Blasio recently stated that he wouldn’t be removing New York Police Department officers from schools. In the wake of videos showing the police engaging in rough (and sometimes fatal) interactions with Black and Brown adults, several educational activist organizations called for the removal of law enforcement from educational properties. The Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) and the Dignity in Schools Campaign New York blasted the mayor for sticking with this policy considering the recent news.

“Safety is investing in the community. We can have safe and supportive schools that do not perpetuate harm by fully funding our schools,” said Logan Rozos, a youth leader at Dignity in Schools Campaign NY. “This means investing in the citywide expansion of restorative justice, which enables school communities to build positive school climates by creating shared values and get to the root of an issue when harm occurs. We also need him to invest in school counselors and social workers, instead of cops. A new reality is possible and necessary.”

“It is clear de Blasio does not have the moral or political courage to tackle one of the most troubling and concerning racial justice issues of our time: the role of police in our schools and communities,” said AQE’s Campaigns Director Maria Bautista. “The nation has risen up in righteous protest across the country to demand change in the way in which we use violence and excessive force to maintain order in our communities and schools.”