Covid-19, Labor

“So Many Questions Still Unanswered”: Why NYC Schools Should Not Reopen in the Fall

New York educator Emily Helen explains what is at stake as the new school year approaches, arguing that there is no safe way to reopen schools during the pandemic—and teachers are ready to fight.

2020 has certainly been a year of changes and disruptions for all of us. One of the foremost shifts for NYC students, parents, administrators, and union activists was the move in March to remote learning. As September fast approaches, one question looms: Will children and teachers be returning to school?

The question of whether in-person classes will or even should resume rages across the country. In Florida, which is currently besieged by Covid-19 after the governor refused to take preventative action against the pandemic, the teachers’ union has sued the state to stop an emergency order that would require schools to open with in-person instruction in August. Some school districts in California and Texas have decided that it is unsafe to reopen this month and plan to take precautionary measures by keeping learning remote. On a federal level, Trump has threatened funding for any schools that do not fully reopen for in-person learning, and liberal and conservative media alike have consistently wrung their hands about how not reopening schools is a “threat to business.” Childcare, many opine, must be provided so that parents can go to work and stimulate the suffering national economy.

At the writing of this article, no formal decision has been made about whether or not NYC students and teachers will find themselves back in the classroom in the fall. Though NYC effectively drove down Covid-19 cases and deaths between March and July — in which some 22,000 people died from the disease — a few hundred new Covid-19 cases are still being recorded daily. The virus, though nowhere near the presence it was in earlier months, lingers, creating very real concerns about the health and safety of the 1,100,000 children and 75,000 teachers who would be returning to schools should they reopen — as well as the millions who live in NYC and would be affected by a school-originating second wave of the virus.

So, what is going to happen? This is a very complex question with a complex and ever-changing response. On a city level, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Schools Chancellor of Education Richard Carranza have stated that an official decision will be made closer to the end of August, after months of monitoring Covid-19 in the city and evaluating data from students, teachers, and parents. At the end of June, staff and parents were asked to share their comfort level with returning to schools in a survey whose results were later grossly misquoted by de Blasio, who stated that a majority of parents were comfortable with returning to schools, when in reality the number was 28%. Yet, the city has pushed forward tenuous initiatives. Principals have been asked to put together committees to plan a reopening of schools using a blended model, in which students come into schools in small groups 1-2 days a week and do the rest of their learning remotely. Parents have also been given the opportunity to opt out of in-school learning for a 100% remote model on a DOE survey, though the survey also states that if a parent does not fill out the survey, it will default to blended learning. Despite all the talk of gathering data and waiting to make a decision, the undercurrent from the mayor’s office is clear: Schools should and will reopen. When Stuyvesant High School prepared a fully remote reopening plan, it was flatly rejected.

In a United Federation of Teachers Town Hall phone meeting on July 21, UFT president Michael Mulgrew addressed NYC teachers’ growing concerns about what will happen in September: First, he stated, he has made clear to de Blasio that teachers are not babysitters and that schools cannot reopen simply to provide childcare services. That responsibility, he stated, falls on the mayor, not the DOE. Mulgrew also made clear that after the city’s delayed closure of schools in March in response to the very clear threat of the pandemic (which led to the illness and deaths of many teachers and students’ family members) has left the union and teachers with “no trust, no faith.” The union is working closely with the DOE on issues of safety and instructional protocol, Mulgrew assured us, but he himself consistently came back around to the fundamental uncertainty of the moment: “so many questions still unanswered.”

As of August, 3000 teachers who qualify for one of eight medical conditions have applied for accommodations to do fully remote teaching in September. For the rest of us, our futures are unclear. Is it truly safe to have any number of students or staff in a building, even at one-third or one-fourth capacity? Will students and staff be tested before schools open? Will they be tested regularly while schools are open? Will taking students’ temperatures at the beginning of each school day truly be an accurate measure of risk? Will all public schools really be able to hire contact tracers and nurses? How will we enforce social distancing or wearing masks? What happens if a teacher or a student tests positive? What about the many old and poorly ventilated school buildings in NYC? Ventilation and air flow have become key to the debate in opening schools as they play a major part in the transmission of Covid-19. Even with a change in filters and assurances of nightly “deep cleaning,” many NYC schools still could not have adequate ventilation to pass a safety test — not to mention the lack of funds to support the realization of these plans. 

On an instructional level, further questions abound: If we use a blended learning model, how will teachers coordinate their efforts between in-person instruction and remote instruction? If each section of students is split into 3 – 4 sections and each of those sections must come in for in-person instruction separately one day a week while also completing remote work the other four days of the school week, what are the best instructional practices to ensure success for all students? Is it possible for teachers to provide this instruction within a blended model without elongating work days or taking away prep periods, protections ensured by the UFT’s legally binding contract with the city? If a large number of parents at the school opt-out of in-person learning, how will teachers coordinate efforts to teach some students fully remotely and others in a blended environment? What platform will schools be using for remote learning — and when will teachers get access to it to begin planning their curricula? Will state tests return, including the Regents, necessary for graduation from high school? How will state curricula be amended to accomodate for the slower pace of remote learning? What is a “year’s growth” using a remote or blended-learning model? How will special education and ENL teachers provide adequate support for their students? Should certain populations come into school more often? 

All of these questions and their proposed solutions only lead to more questions. As an ENL (English as a New Language)  teacher on the instructional sub-committee for reopening at my school, I have continuously raised concerns about my English Language Learners and their distinct linguistic and pedagogical needs, but have often felt overwhelmed by how one proposed solution about in-person learning leads to another problem. For example, say that we decide that it would be better for ELLs (English Language Learners) to have more access to the building to receive one-on-one help from teachers. As we are required to wear masks, ELLs–even in this “preferable” situation of increased in-person teacher support–would face another problem: the loss of being able to read teachers’ and other students’ lips, one of their greatest tools for understanding a new language. A friend who teaches English in South Korea confirmed to me that this has been a huge issue for her students. Is it truly fair to ask these students to learn a new language through a mask?  

At the center of all these questions lives another enormous question: Should we, the NYC teachers, fight this push to return to schools? Should we take up the mantle of the Floridian teachers and sue? Is it time to strike? Groups such as the MORE caucus have called openly for a NYC teacher strike and have been providing training for teachers on how to organize at their individual schools. Other sources have even called for a nationwide teacher strike, the rationale being that if we, the teachers, do not take matters into our own hands, our students, our coworkers, and all of our families will be put in jeopardy by politicians who care more about a return to business-as-usual than our lives. A meme much-circulated on teacher Twitter and Instagram states, “1995: There are six inches of snow. School is cancelled. 2020: There’s a global pandemic that will kill some of your parents and teachers and a few of you. Don’t miss the bus.” Though hyperbolic, the sentiment is clear: Students and staff are not frontline workers. Why are we being put at risk? If teachers’ usage of PPE is having to be considered “as if in a hospital setting” (as Mulgrew stated in the Town Hall) is this not adequate evidence that schools should not be reopened? Why is the city creating a hospital setting unnecessarily and jeopardizing the lives of its teachers, students, and families when the resources are available to continue remote learning, a much safer (if still complicated) option? The truth is that the push to return to school is less for the benefit of children than it is part of a concerted effort to get their parents back to work. Once schools are reopened, there will be little to stop the momentum into business as usual, and those millions of workers who have safely managed their jobs from home will have no choice but to return to work, safe or not.

It is well known that the UFT is not a union to be trifled with, and by all means Mulgrew has indicated that it will stand by its members. In a question we’d all been waiting to hear answered in the Town Hall meeting, a teacher asked Mulgrew what will happen at the end of August if the DOE demands that students and teachers return to schools for in-person instruction and the UFT does not believe this to be a safe option. Mulgrew paused for a moment before responding: “We are preparing to do whatever we need to do,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say on this call.” As one of many thousands of NYC teachers, I say this: Should de Blasio demand an unsafe return to schools, we’ll see you in the streets.

By Emily Helen