Earlier today, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Michael Mulgrew struck a deal that will delay the opening of schools. Until it was finalized, the union and its 75,000 members were on the verge of their first strike in forty-five years.
Early reports indicated in-school learning would be pushed back by eleven days, with additional time for teachers to train and prepare. Although many teachers are anxious to get back to work, they had every reason to question the safety of the schools they were being sent back to — and though a strike has been averted, they still do.
De Blasio wanted schools open on day one. “Here is going to be a moment to bring back our schools,” he said recently, “and address what everyone’s been through.” De Blasio has pinned a return to schools as the beginning of a return to normal for New York City, staggering under lost revenue during the pandemic.
A reopening of schools by next week would have made New York City’s school system the only one of the ten largest districts in the country to do so. It is the country’s largest system, adding infinite complexity to an already dangerous experiment. But de Blasio, not often associated with high levels of competence, insisted on orchestrating a return to schools for 1.1 million students and their 75,000 teachers.
In today’s deal, there was also reportedly a promise of mobile testing vans and a “monthly medical monitoring process.” Testing was a major point of contention between the mayor and the union, which now seems at least partially resolved. But many other concerns have not yet been addressed.
It’s worth reviewing those concerns as teachers, students, and parents prepare for a return to schools. If conditions do not prove safe, teachers may need to revisit the strike option on behalf of the millions of New Yorkers who depend on safe schools.
Teachers Were Going To Strike To Keep People Alive
Teachers and students aren’t the only ones being put at risk by de Blasio’s gamble. We are still living through a historic global pandemic, during which for a time New York City was the worst-hit city in one of the worst-hit countries on the planet. COVID-19 has left nearly twenty-four thousand New Yorkers dead.
That picture is much better now, and Mayor de Blasio and NYC Department of Education (DOE) chancellor Richard Carranza point to the city’s low 0.24 percent test positivity rate, insisting a safe opening is possible. This is indeed the lowest citywide average since the pandemic began in March.
But a citywide average ignores the very different levels in each neighborhood. In Sunset Park, the positivity rate was nearly 7 percent as recently as early August. The Department of Education employs nearly 135,000 full-time workers, and many more that are part-time. Even with some students learning remotely, a return to in-class instruction has the potential to be dangerous and even fatal for teachers, staff, and students — and for the families and neighborhoods they will return to each day.
“All students and staff will be teaching in safe spaces with proper ventilation,” Chancellor Carranza said at a press conference, addressing city school communities. “That is our promise to you.”
It is now widely accepted that the coronavirus lingers in the air. Proper ventilation is critically important for indoor activities: in places where people will congregate for the entire day, there absolutely must be a system to reliably move fresh air in and stale air out.
To make good on Carranza’s promise, the city dispatched a little more than a hundred Department of Education inspection teams, which were given one week to review 1,700 city schools, in a system that has been underfunded and buckling for decades.
They’ve now been given more time. But will it be enough? “Roughly 650 of the 1,500 buildings surveyed in 2019 by city inspectors had at least one deficiency in their exhaust fans,” reported the New York Daily News. “The defects ranged from minor snags to more serious conditions like deteriorated metal and dead motors.” This left the Department of Education “racing to inspect and repair existing systems, unbolt windows that have long been shuttered,” reported Chalkbeat New York, “and to place 10,000 portable air filtration units in nurses offices and poorly ventilated spaces.”
It was ludicrous to expect thorough reviews and repairs could be carried out at the speed required. This was quickly proven when city council education chair Mark Treyger tweeted out pictures of safety inspectors waving toilet paper binder-clipped to sticks, to test for proper ventilation in classrooms. His caption: “The official and comprehensive NYC inter-agency classroom ventilation inspection process.”
De Blasio and Carranza have made other safety promises that manage to be both improbable and underwhelming. For principals terrified they will run out of personal protective equipment (PPE), there will be a hotline to request additional masks and cleaning supplies. But the hotline would have to be very well staffed, and the city’s reserves very well stocked, to meet the inevitable crush of requests from panicked administrators.
There is also the promise of a full-time nurse in every school building. This is miles away from reality in the cash-strapped school system, where just last fall it was reported that “more than 700 of New York City’s schools go a partial or full day without a nurse on site.”
Hundreds don’t have a nurse at all. But that’s just one nurse, for buildings that can house as many as three or four separate schools. For communities like Sunset Park, with its 7 percent COVID positivity rate, the impossible feat of one nurse per building might not nearly be enough.
Teachers Were Going To Strike for Education
Each year, NYC teachers return to classrooms two days before students. They use this time to set up their classrooms, plan for the year, and coordinate with their teaching teams. This year, their two days of preparation will be filled with COVID-19 preparation. It was unclear where teachers will get time to properly prepare to teach.
There are a host of new safety protocols to learn. Classrooms, abandoned since March, will need to be reconfigured according to social distancing guidelines. Teachers will have to devise lessons that don’t put students into direct physical proximity or collaboration — two things that make in-person learning so effective.
Under a DOE/UFT agreement, classes previously taught by one person will now be led by a team of three. One teacher will meet with students in-person, and two with remote learners. That’s a good thing, because teaching remotely creates enormous challenges. In a system that serves large poor and immigrant populations, students who live in cramped apartments attend classes in their living rooms or kitchens, right next to their family members or roommates. To get some privacy, some hide in the bathroom. Understandably, they do not want to have their camera on.
For many teachers, selecting “Hide Non-Video Participants” will mean staring into a black screen. The many things students communicate nonverbally, which teachers are trained to respond to, will simply be lost. Having extra teachers will help to salvage whatever possible from a much-diminished remote learning experience.
But now, three teachers will have to collaborate on a class previously taught by one. There is a major question about where these extra teachers might come from — particularly with the looming threat of 9,000 jobs lost to budget cuts. Schools will be able to request additional teachers. But integrating new people, in the midst of a rush to set up everything else, is a dicey proposition.
“Asking for more teachers a week before school is supposed to start, although it provides us with babysitters, it does not provide us with instructional coherence,” said Arin Rusch, the principal of MS 447 in Brooklyn. “We are hiring educators for our school. We’re not hiring bodies.”
Teachers will also need to prepare to receive children, many of whom have been traumatized by the months-long lockdown. At the same time, $20 million in cuts to borough offices will mean that schools with tighter budgets may not be able to keep their social worker or counselor on staff.
To bridge this gap, the DOE plans to train teachers on “trauma-informed practices,” to help students cope. “I think we need to learn about trauma-informed pedagogy and how to be good people to our students who have experienced trauma,” said one eighth grade social studies teacher. “I don’t think we have the time or the mental space, really, to do that right now.”
The full range of concerns was echoed in a letter to Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza from the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, representing 6,400 principals:
Additional time before the start of in-person learning would allow our system to answer basic, but vital questions. When will nurses be hired for schools currently in need? How will school communities be informed of repairs to ventilation systems? When will schools receive PPE, thermometers, signage, hand sanitizers and cleaning materials to comply with the safety protocols? What additional support will be given to communities if they have a higher positivity rate than the city standard? Will we have sufficient staff to schedule both in-person and remote teaching? Do our schools have sufficient bandwidth to support remote instruction? When will we receive proper guidance specific to our students with special needs?
These are just a small sample of questions that must be answered for school leaders to provide a safe and successful educational environment for students.
With a deal in place that moves instruction online-only for the first eleven days, teachers will have some additional room to plan. But whatever time they can grab will likely be too little to comfortably prepare for their students’ safety, while also working on lesson plans and educational content.
Teachers Could Have Struck for the Common Good
Teachers are not the only ones affected by the chaos created by a premature push to return to school. In their efforts to assure the city that schools will be safe, de Blasio and Carranza promised they would be deep cleaned every day. But there are no plans to beef up custodial staff. Custodians will find themselves under enormous strain as they are expected to do far more work, with much higher stakes, and it’s not clear they will have the proper resources and supplies.
Also affected are special-needs students and the drivers who take them to school. When it became clear schools would not reopen in April, de Blasio cancelled contracts with the myriad of school bus companies that provide services to the city. Last year 163,000 students were transported on school buses. With a week to go before school is to begin, the city still has not finalized new contracts with school bus companies. Once those contracts are finalized, bus companies will scramble to rehire furloughed workers.
They’ll also need to plan routes that are significantly more complex: students will be attending school one to three days a week on a staggered schedule, meaning different routes each day with different passengers. And buses can only run at 25 percent capacity to observe social distancing.
This will no doubt leave many children without transportation — including, potentially, fifty thousand students with disabilities who are legally entitled to yellow bus service. If there is no bus system in place, the city plans to reimburse parents for ride shares and transportation via Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That is another expensive headache, which will be compounded by an early reopening.
Similar stories could be told, many times over, about different sectors of New York’s workforce. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed who the real essential workers are, it has revealed the irreplaceable role of schools as community hubs. And teachers, with their direct contact with students, their families, and many other local organizations and residents, are ideally positioned to help organize those communities.
This is what the MORE-UFT caucus (Movement of Rank-and-File Educators), has done, organizing teachers and parents, and developing a School Reopening Campaign Toolkit. Tactics like these are working: more than 1,800 registered for MORE’s recent informational call about the return to schools. “People are just so desperate for information,” one teacher, who was on the call, told me. Whatever degree of militancy UFT shows — which so far has not been much — would be unimaginable without organized pressure from the MORE caucus.
New York teachers need our support. This will be a hard fight — inevitably one of many more to come. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged to bring in notorious “education reformer” Bill Gates to reimagine learning. Bill Gates, as some will recall, has been losing a two-decade-long battle to de-skill teachers — so decisively, in fact, that even Forbes magazine declared, “Bill Gates Is Not The Man To Reimagine New York Education.” Paired with Cuomo’s remarks that question why school buildings even exist, there are sure signs a new education fight is brewing.
Those fights, like many that have come before, will not be framed as open attacks on teachers and schools. Rather, they will come in the guise of making hard choices on tightening budgets. In June, de Blasio recommended $642 million in education cuts. More will likely come from Cuomo’s budget. New York state withheld $324 million in payments to schools in June and July, on top of $3.1 billion still unpaid from a 2006 court judgement. “COVID won’t kill schools,” Rosie Frascella, a high school chapter leader, told me. “Budget cuts will kill the schools.”
New York City teachers are well positioned to lead struggles, not just for themselves and their students, but entire communities and spiraling networks of workers across the city. Good teachers are, by definition, good organizers. That makes the school system, with its more than 1,700 schools across the city, a potential engine of working-class organization unlike any other we have today.