Last week, it seems, Mayor Bill de Blasio toppled one large and final barrier to schools re-opening for in-person instruction this month as he prevented a rare and illegal teacher’s strike by conceding to a couple of the unions’ demands regarding health and safety protocols. One of these requests will delay the beginning of the school year by 10 days, with both in-person and remote classes starting on Sept. 21 for the city’s 1.1 million public school students.
The delay is intended to buy the city’s Department of Education, and its individual schools, a little more time to prepare for a brand-new mode of instruction amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s a risky and challenging undertaking, and one no other major urban school district in the country is willing to attempt as cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have opted to begin the year with remote learning only. But since his initial announcement that he intended for schools to resume in-person learning, the mayor has been constant in his view that returning to the classroom would be critical for the city and its students, particularly for students who receive services.
But there is great doubt among teachers and parents that a delay of 10 days will do much to repair a process they have described as disorganized and confusing. Parents said they have been asked to make big and important decisions about their children’s health, safety and education with very little information from DOE officials. For teachers, it’s still unclear exactly how this mode of education will work. Overall, there is a sense that time for the city to figure out these details has been wasted.
“I definitely feel more anxious now than I did back in June,” said Gabrielle Utting, who works as a high school English teacher in Manhattan. “Back in June, there was still a lot of time to get things planned, to get things in place, and now we’re supposed to be going back in less than a week, and the time has really run out.”
Health and Safety Measures
In June, when the mayor announced his intention to pursue a model of blended learning —which will involve students alternating between days in the classroom and days at home — Utting had conflicting emotions. She was excited at the prospect of getting back to in-person instruction, which she said is essential to building relationships with students. But she, along with other members United Federation of Teachers union, was concerned about whether returning would be safe at all.
She hoped that in the intervening months her concerns would be assuaged. And some of them have, in part thanks to the demands UFT made of the city. The DOE is in the midst of upgrading ventilation systems in classrooms, hiring more school nurses and delivering personal protective equipment to schools. On top of other health and safety measures, the mayor has also agreed to mandate students and faculty comply with monthly, random testing for the virus. But with only a week before Utting is set to return to work, she is not confident the DOE has done enough.
“It doesn’t feel like there is a good plan or there’s even the basic supplies that we need to keep everyone safe,” Utting said in an interview. Over the last week, Utting said she’s received emails from school officials informing teachers that her school has not yet received masks and some other supplies. In one email from Chancellor Richard Carranza, he said the DOE is still waiting on state and federal funds needed to make some of these purchases, according to Utting.
“I think delaying is smart but I think I’m a little skeptical that one week is going to be enough time to get all that stuff,” she said, noting that the city’s hopes of revival hinge on the schools making this plan work.
“This feels like something where if we did it well, and we were well planned, we could slowly integrate without any big consequences, “ she said. “But if we mess it up — we’ve messed it up big for the whole city.”
Making the Choice
Over the summer, parents were given the choice to put their children back into school with blended learning or opt for remote-only learning. About 37 percent of students will receive full-time remote instruction, according to the DOE, meaning the majority of children will be back in classrooms this fall. But parents say they were asked to make this choice with hardly any information about what remote learning would look like.
“To this day, I still don’t think anybody knows,” said one Upper East Side mother who asked to remain anonymous. For her child, the mother said remote learning did not work well. Live instruction was minimal at her daughter’s elementary school, meaning a parent needed to play a big role in teaching. So for the fall, she wanted her daughter to be able to have the most traditional in-person school experience as possible. She waited to hear what New York City would do definitively in September, but said while communication came frequently from her school, it lacked substance.
Thankfully, this parent said, her daughter has another option. She and her family often spend summer vacations in Rhode Island, and have decided to stay in Newport for the school year so her daughter could enroll in the private school where she’s attended camp the last three years, and she would be able to go to school for in-person instruction five days a week.
“I have a child that loves routine and wants to be in the classroom and loves teachers and loves to be with other kids. We just that’s what we think we owe to our daughter and that’s what we’re comfortable with,” she said, acknowledging this was a decision not available to many other families in NYC.
La Keesha Taylor, who also lives on the Upper East Side with her two sons, said she would also be sending her children back to school because of the social-emotional aspect of education. Taylor’s youngest son receives services at school and she said he needs more experience socializing with friends.
Taylor said she trusts the teachers and faculty at her sons’ school, but she does not trust the de Blasio administration and does not believe the mayor will succeed in keeping schools open.
“I have faith in my school,” Taylor said. “But what about the schools in poorer districts? You are playing God with these children’s lives.”
For now, Taylor will send her boys to school, but she doesn’t expect in-person learning to last.
“What I worry about is like what’s going to happen when this experiment fails?” said Taylor. “Because in my mind I really do think that once everyone goes back, it’s probably going to fail.”
“It doesn’t feel like there is a good plan or there’s even the basic supplies that we need to keep everyone safe.” High school English teacher Gabrielle Utting
“I have faith in my school. But what about the schools in poorer districts? You are playing God with these children’s lives.” La Keesha Taylor, Upper East Side parent