Facing a mountain of criticism from all sides, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have changed their minds…again.
This week, the mayor and chancellor announced that lower-grade schools (pre-K to 5th grade) will reopen to in-person learning on Dec. 7. Schools that serve students with “significant” disabilities (District 75) will reopen on Dec. 10.
Middle school and high school students more than likely won’t have in-person classes for the rest of 2020, according to City Hall officials. De Blasio’s office didn’t provide an answer regarding an actual date in 2021.
During a recent news conference, the mayor mapped out his reasons why he’s focusing on lower-grade schools.
“Why? Because we know, first of all, studies consistently show that younger kids are having less of a negative experience,” said de Blasio. “And there’s less concern about the spread when it comes to younger kids. Also, the demands that our parents are going through. And I feel for all our parents who are experiencing so many challenges right now, how important it is for them to have their younger kids in school, how important that is at that age, both educationally and socially, but also in terms of how parents juggle all the challenges in their life.”
The mayor’s 3% rolling positive test threshold for closing schools stays in play, but it will only be applied by geographic zones with a certain number of cases. It won’t be a blanket policy for the city. However, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday that New York City public schools in all zones (including orange and red) can stay open and not just the ones in yellow zones. This is based on testing in those zones echoing testing in yellow zones.
During a news conference with the governor, his secretary, Melissa DeRosa said, “They can stay open.”
Earlier this month, Cuomo questioned de Blasio closing schools on Nov. 19 on the basis that the state and the city’s had the lowest positive test rates in the country for months since quarantine first took place.
When asked by the AmNews if some of Cuomo’s comments had any effect on de Blasio’s decision, both the mayor and the governor’s office didn’t comment by press time.
The AmNews attempted to contact Carranza for comment, but were unsuccessful. However, in a statement emailed to the paper, the chancellor said that the value of children going to a physical building to learn with their peers can’t be matched.
“Getting our kids back in school buildings is one of the single most important things we can do for their well-being, and it’s so important that we do it right,” said Carranza. “The unparalleled value of in-person learning for students has been evident in the first few months of school, and we will do everything we can to keep our schools safe and keep them open for the duration of this pandemic.”
As part of the return, all students and staff in every school will submit to random testing for 20% of the schools’ population. Parents would have to fill out a consent form using their online New York City Schools Account at mystudent.nyc.
According to the city, the testing is safe and its most recent round of tests showed a 0.28% positivity rate (453 out of almost 160,000 tests), which is significantly below the positivity in the city (currently over 4%). The city and schools will also have to collaborate on changes in schedules, preparing for five day work weeks again to accommodate over 300,000 students who’ve attended class in-person.
All of this, for now, sounds good to United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.
“While schools in the city’s high-impact red and orange coronavirus zones will continue to abide by the state’s 3% closing rules, we are supportive of a phased reopening of schools in other neighborhoods as long as stringent testing is in place,” stated Mulgrew. “This strategy—properly implemented—will allow us to offer safe in-person instruction to the maximum number of students until we beat the pandemic.”
With the duo constantly changing course on policy, they’re now––at least according to New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams––doing what they should’ve done all along. He urged the mayor to be cautious and seek clarity with this current plan with the second wave of coronavirus cases hitting the city.
“The framework that the mayor is now pursuing to re-open schools includes many elements that I and others have said for many months would be essential for a re-opening that is guided by science and framed in justice and equity,” said Williams in a statement to the AmNews. “A phased-in approach beginning with younger students and students most in need, paired with a large increase in testing has always been essential to the goal we share of safely returning students to the classroom- but we can neither prioritize a schedule over safety, nor wait for the Mayor to come to the right conclusions at the wrong moments in time.”
In September, the mayor and chancellor reopened New York City public schools for the first time since March when the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down. The plan, like the current one, was part of a staggered reopening process with a focus on pre-K, special education and pre-school classes for 3-year-olds. The initial opening occurred after a delay where teachers threatened to strike over lack of confidence in the city’s testing protocol.
Post reopening, the mayor still had his detractors. In a three-page letter sent to New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Council of School Supervisors & Administration offered a “vote of no confidence” in New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ability to handle his responsibilities with New York public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and requested that New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo run the schools.
According to Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director at Alliance for Quality Education, the mayor and the chancellor have an uphill climb to make to get in the good graces of parents again.
“So far during the pandemic, Mayor de Blasio’s record on garnering the trust of families and students has been poor verging on disastrous,” Ansari told the AmNews. “Over the next few months, rebuilding that trust must be his focus. As we again embark on the process of re-opening schools, families and students need and deserve honest, clear and multilingual communication that is consistent across City Hall, the Department of Education, and schools. Families need to know that when they speak up to advocate for their children, that the mayor listens.
“The onus is now on Mayor de Blasio to convince Black and Brown communities, who have been marginalized long before COVID-19, why they should trust that his plan to ensure the safety and academic success of their children,” said Ansari.