A Year After Teachers Closed Them, NYC Schools Are Still Unsafe

Last year, as elected officials dithered on whether to shut down schools at the pandemic’s beginning, educators forced them shut. A year later, educators are making the same demand — against the efforts of both Mayor Bill de Blasio and their own union, the United Federation of Teachers.

The first day back to school on December 7, 2020 at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

During the second week of March last year, fears mounted that New York City was in the grip of a serious health crisis. On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the NBA postponed its season; on Thursday, March 12, Broadway went dark.

Educators began hearing about schools with COVID-19 cases that the Department of Education refused to close. More than four hundred of us gathered on a Saturday Zoom call and discussed how to #CloseNYCSchools. We organized phone trees in our school buildings to convince our colleagues that the best service for our students was not to go in to work on Monday. In some schools, 60 to 70 percent of staff called in sick.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo would never admit it, the sickout threat is what forced them to announce that schools would be closed on March 16, 2020.

In retrospect, the politicians dithered too long: a month later, almost one thousand people were dying each day in New York City. At least eighty public school staff died, a large number of whom were paraprofessionals, an underpaid group of educators who are disproportionately black and brown.

Some experts estimate that action even a week or two earlier could have reduced the death toll by 50 to 80 percent.

Educators tried to get those in power to listen to reason then. We are trying again now.

Mayor Bent on Reopening

The mayor is bent on reopening school buildings for the 30 percent of students who selected in-person learning in November. In doing so, he has the full cooperation of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which at every turn has enabled unsafe moves to reopen the schools.

The union quickly backed down from a poorly planned strike threat in September. It has allowed the mayor to ignore a previously announced 3 percent community positivity threshold for school closure. And it has shut down the grievance process throughout the pandemic.

But educators know that what students need to thrive and be safe at school is not being provided. We know we need to keep organizing to force the system to provide safer and better learning opportunities for our students and a safe working environment for adults. This will be done alongside our union leadership if we can — but it will be done independently if we must.

First of all, the trust that was broken last March with New York City families is a long way from being repaired. Instead of investing in serious infrastructure and professional development to make distance learning work, the mayor has focused the limited time and energy of educators on a Rube Goldberg–style hybrid learning scheme that still is not functional for most students.

This hybrid plan devotes the majority of resources to the one-third of students who are now listed as attending school in person, based on the choices that were given to them in November. Although the mayor is touting students of color in his PR campaign to reopen, in fact, those who chose an in-person return are disproportionately white. For those who chose this option, elementary schools opened in December and middle schools in February; high schools are set to reopen on March 22. (However, individual schools — in the hundreds in recent weeks — are constantly closing again because of COVID protocols.)

Teachers know that inadequately resourced remote learning is not serving our students. We face Zoom classrooms every day with weak attendance and distracted, disengaged learners, fatigued from a year of online learning without sufficient time or space for healing, reflection, and mental health support.

But simply adding an in-person option for a fraction of students doesn’t fix that.

Trust Broke Down

Most fundamentally, trust must be rebuilt with a school system that never served students and families of color well — or treated its employees with adequate respect — and that colossally and tragically failed both students and educators in the past year.

Trust has also broken down with our union leaders, who repeatedly backed down during the reopening struggle and, in the end, allowed educators back into unsafe conditions. This is unsurprising given the local leadership’s long history as comanager of the school system and of collaboration with the political establishment. Teachers whose eyes were opened by the union’s role are now running for shop steward around the school system and organizing in district-based committees.

To rebuild trust, many needs must be addressed beyond the important first step of vaccine availability. Every school must have a nurse. N95 masks should be standard issue for students and educators. Face shields and goggles are needed for the indoor dining situations known as “instructional lunch.” (For COVID safety, cafeterias are off-limits. Students don’t travel around the school; they sit in pods all day. This will be true even for high school students.)

City homeless shelters need wireless internet access, so that students can participate in remote learning; 114,000 New York City students are homeless or in temporary housing. School ventilation and air filtration must be improved. Contact tracing and the Department of Education “Situation Room” that handles closure alerts have to be reinforced.

Most important, the emotional and mental health of our student body demands an investment in counselors, social workers, and other mental health staff — not to mention the cancellation of all standardized testing for this year, so schools can focus on healing.

All this requires money.

The Money Is There

Public schools in New York state are owed about $4 billion in state funds from before the pandemic, which Governor Cuomo has refused to repay.

Further, he has refused to tax the rich in order to solve the problems that schools are encountering as they try to reopen safely; he claims a onetime federal stimulus will solve the long-standing funding problems that he has only made worse. Instead, Democratic majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Carl Heastie must ensure public schools are fully funded in this year’s budget and receive substantial additional aid for a just COVID recovery.

School workers have been devastated and exhausted by the trauma that we have endured throughout this pandemic — and that the mayor and governor have added to. Educators need to tie school reopening in 2021, and contract negotiations in 2022, to our government finally fulfilling the duties it has to our children.

And, as we get through the rest of this second school year from hell, we can keep in mind that the power of solidarity with one another and with New York City families still gives us the power to be heard and to make change.

Republished from Labor Notes.

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Peter Allen-Lamphere is a high school teacher, chapter leader, and member of the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers.

Annie Tan is an elementary school teacher and member of the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers.

Andrew Worthington is a high school teacher, chapter leader, and member of the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers.

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