A Letter To Families of all New York City Students

To Families of all New York City Students: 

Collectively, we write this letter out of deep concern for the safety of New York City public school students and families. As teachers, it is our moral obligation as caretakers of your children to make sure everyone is aware of the countless unanswered questions around the DOE’s plan for in-person blended learning. It is unacceptable that parents were asked to “choose” between a hybrid or remote model without basic information about what both options would actually look like. We also are concerned that the DOE’s untenable plan will fall apart soon after buildings reopen, plunging our communities into more disorientation, trauma and instability while also spreading COVID further throughout our city. 

While we understand that this is not the ideal option for anyone, including ourselves, given the countless still unanswered questions about the Mayor’s hybrid model, we write to encourage you to choose remote learning if you have any flexibility to do so.

We have attended the town halls, the union meetings, the PA meetings, the special information sessions, the Q and A’s and more. We have pored over every piece of guidance released by the DOE.  And through all of this, we have seen zero evidence that this reopening will be safe, and we have not been met with clear communication, clarity or reassurance. Instead, our concerns have been dismissed, we have been called lazy and unwilling to work while the Mayor and Chancellor have lied  to the public about what is actually happening over the summer to prepare for a safe reopening. 

What kind of learning conditions do we want for our children? What kind of working conditions do we want for our children’s teachers? How do we keep every single member of our community safe? These are the questions we must begin with if our school (and public schools around our city) are to ever get through this pandemic intact and not in utter disarray (or worse–defunded and dismantled). Instead of asking these questions, we hear things like “How far apart do we have to keep the students?”, “How many students can we fit in a room?”, and “Will they be allowed to talk during lunch?”

We want to be back in our classrooms with all our students, but given these extraordinary circumstances and the lack of clarity from the DOE, our goal must be to keep every member of our school community alive and healthy.  If schools are indeed allowed to reopen, having a majority of students opt for 100% remote will allow students who must attend school in-person to do so with less risk, as numbers in the building will be drastically reduced. We know each family is working with unique circumstances, and we do not want to pressure anyone; however, if your circumstances allow you to choose 100% remote, you will help keep the greatest number of students and staff safe, and remove a huge amount of uncertainty from the start of your child’s school year. While we know that remote learning does not compare to in-person learning, the more students who are remote, the more teachers will be able to devote time and attention to making remote learning the best it can be. 

If a large number of families choose remote learning, it will send a message to the Chancellor, Mayor, Governor, and other leaders that their plan for this school year is not safe, and they must delay full building reopening and go back to the drawing board to come up with creative,equitable and community vetted alternatives to meet the needs of families and students. 

In the last few weeks we have seen principals (District 15, District 13), nurses, city council members, cafeteria workers and unions (CSA and UFT)  speaking out about the DOE’s inoperable plans. In addition, NYC parents have put together this dealbreakers presentation, outlining many of our shared concerns. If the DOE does forge ahead with their inoperable plan despite the pleas of experts, parents, teachers and policy makers, and you have the ability to choose remote learning, you will also help the families who do not have the means or flexibility to make this choice. It will be easier to safely accommodate a smaller number of students who must attend school in-person.

We know many families are excited about the possibility of outdoor learning. Our hope would be to incorporate outdoor learning  as part of a mostly remote model for the start of the school year. However, given that the DOE just announced a process for schools to apply for outdoor space and is not providing schools with any resources to implement outdoor learning, it is likely most students would be inside most of the time. We want you to be able to make the most informed decision possible when it comes to the choice for your child and that is the heart of this letter. 

We have countless questions and concerns that we desperately need answered. We hope that sharing these with you will help you make the safest decision for your child and your whole family.

Our questions about the DOE’s reopening plan:

General safety concerns:

  • City infection rate threshold: The city has set an infect rate threshold of 3%. However, many neighborhoods in the city already have infection rates exceeding 3%. We are concerned reopening school buildings without consideration of these variations will put our Black and Latinx students and families at even more risk of contracting COVID. Why is the city using a citywide average instead of requiring every neighborhood to be under 3%? 
  • Ventilation: We know COVID is airborne indoors and that room ventilation is key. Many school buildings have no HVAC system, and in most cases no one has yet been in the buildings to address ventilation issues. The Mayor has insisted ventilation is being addressed, yet it is not happening.We have been told to open windows and keep A/C off, unless we can use the fan feature. 
    • Where does the air go when doors are open to the hallway? 
    • Most classrooms do not have cross-ventilation, so how do we properly filter air?
    • When are these upgrades happening? 
  • Isolation room: Every school is to have an isolation room. 
    • Will there be more than one space if there are other children without COVID symptoms? Who will be assigned to staff this room? Staff should be asked rather than required to take the role of these hazardous positions.
    • The isolation room must be deep-cleaned between each child.  How is that feasible?
    • What if more than one child needs to be isolated? 
  • Temperature checks: 
    • How will the random temperature checks take place? 
    • Why are they only random? 
    • Shouldn’t every person be screened before entry?
  • Testing: 
    • Will families and staff be informed when children/staff have symptoms but are awaiting test results? The DOE documentation does not state that this will happen. 
    • What happens if a child sent to the isolation room doesn’t get tested? 
    • An increase in testing means longer wait times, and tests costs can be prohibitive for parents. Will families get priority and expedited results? 
    • What do we do while awaiting results, given that it is now taking up to two weeks to get results in some places? 
    • There are individuals who are positive for more than two weeks, some as long as 2 months. Are they only returning when symptoms are gone or do they need a negative test?
  • Bathrooms: Bathroom occupancy must be capped and enforced for appropriate social distancing. 
    • Who is enforcing this? 
    • Is a staff member assigned to do this? 
    • How do we make sure teachers from different classes aren’t sending kids to bathrooms at the same time? 
  • Sick staff: It is mandated that staff members showing symptoms should leave school grounds immediately.  
    • Who remains with their students? 
    • Are they also sent home? 
    • Are they mixed with other cohorts (which is to be avoided)? 
    • How does the staff member get home safely? In a taxi? On public transport? 
    • What if it takes several days for that staff member to get test results? Will the whole class still quarantine? 
  • Sanitization:  The DOE plans make frequent reference to “hand washing” or “using hand sanitizer.” 
    • When the plans were first rolled out, schools were told of pending installation of hand washing stations. Is this still happening? 
    • Will each classroom have sanitizer or will it be placed in the hallway? 
    • The documents state that classrooms will be cleaned with “electrostatic sprayers.” Is this documented to work? To be safe?
    • Custodians are already stretched thin. Do we actually have the staff to meet cleaning requirements? 
  • Class coverages: 
    • Who will cover classes for teacher lunch periods? 
    • When will teachers be able to use the restroom?  Someone will need to cover the class and will then be “sharing the air.” 
  • Substitutes: Our system relies on substitute teachers to function. What is the substitute situation going to be? 
    • Will it be forbidden to split up classes if a substitute is unavailable, as often happens?
    • How do we prevent substitutes from carrying COVID from building to building? 
    • If a teacher is sick and needs to go home immediately, who will cover their class? 
    • If a teacher needs to quarantine, who will cover their class? 
    • With budget cuts, will we have money for substitutes? 
  • Entering/Exiting: Schools are required to utilize multiple entries and exits and have these staffed for random temperature screening. 
    • How can schools manage multiple entries and exits with limited staff? Who will do this?
    • How long will it take for students to enter and exit the building while getting temp checks and social distancing? 
  • Class size: The DOE increased the number of students that can be in one classroom over the summer. 
    • What is this based on? 
    • How will we keep kids distant with 14 or 15 kids in a room? 
    • Why hasn’t this change been shared with teachers and families? 

Meals:

  • Eating in the classroom without masks: Research has shown masks protect the people around you more than yourself. Both breakfast and lunch will be eaten in the classroom and students will be allowed to be unmasked indoors at this time. 
    • “The results of a study from late May (not peer-reviewed) [concluded] Covid-19 patients were found to release SARS-CoV-2 simply by exhaling — without coughing or even talking. The authors of that study said the finding implied that airborne transmission ‘plays a major role’ in spreading the virus.” (Full article here.) How will we prevent Covid transmission indoors with students eating two meals a day in their classrooms? 
    • “If someone is coughing or breathing, they emit a range of aerosols,” explained Joseph Allen… “They’ll stay aloft for hours, until the air is diluted with fresh outdoor air or captured in a filter or breathed in and deposited in the lungs, which is, of course, what we’re trying to prevent.” (Full article here.) Who will be covering classroom lunch and/or teacher lunch periods? Who will be pushing in?  This won’t minimize the spread and will instead create more vectors.
    • ““Several experts noted that the distance at which the team found virus is much farther than the six feet recommended for physical distancing….It takes about five minutes for small aerosols to traverse the room even in still air, she added. The six-foot minimum is “misleading, because people think they are protected indoors and they’re really not,” she said.”” (Full article here.) 
  • Instructional lunch: We are told that “in-person student lunch can and should be instructional,” and that students will not be talking or moving during lunch. 
    • When will kids have needed and deserved breaks from instruction? This is not developmentally appropriate for any age group. 
    • How will teachers teach productively when student masks are off and they are worried about COVID transmission? 
    • How do you call something “teaching” if students are required to be silent. That is not teaching, its compliance. What if a student has a question or idea? 

Staffing concerns:

  • Numbers: 
    • How do the numbers make sense for staffing?  
    • Are the remote teachers going to be responsible for multiple classes? 
    • Will teachers teaching in-person also be teaching remotely? 
    • How will that be possible? Teachers working in-person will not be able to offer live instruction to remote students at the same time as teaching live.
  • Accommodations: 
    • What about teachers who don’t qualify for an accomodation but have other health concerns?
    •  “Schools and offices may consider the needs of staff who may not feel comfortable returning to an in-person educational environment when making assignments and modifying work settings and/or schedules where possible.” 
    • Does this mean that individual schools could assign teachers to remote teaching who do not qualify for an accommodation but who feel unsafe?
    • Governor Cuomo stated that considerations will be given to people that may feel uncomfortable going back into buildings. He alleged that it is up to the teachers and parents. So far no consideration has been given to staff for this purpose. 
    • What happens if teachers apply for one mid-year (due to pregnancy or other health concerns)? Who takes over working with their in-person students? Will this be staffed by someone from the DOE’s Central Office? 
  • Paraprofessionals: 
    • What will the jobs of paras look like? 
    • How will it work in the classroom/lunch, etc?  
    • How will paras be protected? 
    • How will 1:1 paras support students from 6 feet away? 
    • How will paras get a lunch break if they are required to be with their 1:1s during student lunch? 
  • Related services like speech, occupational and physical therapy & SETTS: 
    • Will service providers be picking up students from classrooms? 
    • Won’t this increase the risk of transmission? 
    • How do we keep these staff members safe and keep them from spreading COVID from class to class? 
    • Will services be provided individually or in groups? Groups will increase transmission. It will be difficult to only service groups from one cohort due to our large caseloads.
    • How will related service providers be able to see all students with a shortened day?
    • What PPE will be provided, such as masks, face shields, gloves, gowns, on a daily basis?
    • How much will we be provided to disinfect between sessions? 
    • Some students receive several services and interact with various teachers/providers and are typically served in multiple groups of students. This poses a risk to teachers and students in the event there is a positive case. 

Learning/Working conditions concerns: 

  • Masks: The DOE states that nurses will receive n95 masks. 
    • Will teachers receive these? If not, why not? 
    • What kind of masks will be provided for students? 
    • What if students have trouble breathing while wearing a mask for up to 5 hours a day?
    • What if staff members have trouble breathing? 
    • What if we run out of masks? 
    • The city has said they will supply one month of masks to schools. When will these be received? What happens after one month? 
    • What about young students who will need help putting on masks? 
  • Movement throughout the day: “Whether in person or blended, teachers should provide students, especially younger learners, with regular breaks that incorporate movement activities.” 
    • How will this work in a socially distanced classroom? 
    • Will they be allowed outside? 
    • Will they have recess? 
    • Will we be able to provide students with breaks? 
  • Instruction: The DOE asserts that they are providing teachers with professional development  for trauma informed instruction and SEL practices. 
    • They are not. When will this happen? 
    • Will we still be administering district wide standardized tests this fall and then again in the spring? 
  • Classrooms: 
    • How will our rooms be used? 
    • Are schools purchasing new furniture, as many do not have desks for social distancing? If not, how can we distance without individual desks? 
    • How will students be spaced? 
    • How will we organize and hand out materials? 
    • If we’re required to keep windows open and ACs off, what will we do if it’s extremely cold or hot or raining? 
  • Hallways: 
    • How will we move in the hallways? 
    • How will we ensure stairways are ventilated and safe? 
  • Outdoors: “Schools should endeavor to maximize the use of outdoor space for multiple uses, including instruction where feasible and appropriate.” 
    • Can we continue to pursue outdoor learning ideas and plans? 
    • Can remote students use outdoor spaces for meet ups with teachers in a field trip model?
    • What resources will schools get for outdoor learning? 
  • Preparation: Teachers will have a morning  “collaborative planning” period and a 30 minute afternoon prep. 
    • Where is the 45-minute prep teachers are contractually entitled to?
    • If teachers are teaching remotely and in person at the same time, how will this time be sufficient?

Programming:

  • Departmentalization: Middle and high schools have departmentalized grades where students travel for different subjects. 
    • Do all teachers travel from class to class? 
    • Will students be mixing and changing rooms? 
    • Will teachers remain in the same room and have contact with multiple cohorts? 
  • Special Education: 
    • What happens with ICT classes? Having two teachers in one room will increase the risk for all involved, but without two teachers, can we be in compliance with IEPs? 
    • What happens if a school’s SpED teachers are remote and there aren’t enough for in person instruction or vice versa. How will IEPs be met? 
    • How will 1:1 paraprofessionals do their job? 
    • What about self contained classes that are supposed to have 2 adults in the room? 
  • Specials: There is no mention about cluster teachers like art, music or gym teachers in any of the plans. Schools can have physical education, but students need to be 12 feet apart, and specific information about instruction is not provided. 
    • What happens with the rest of our schools’ specialists? 
    • Will there be art, music, science, or technology? 
    • How will we use shared spaces like the art room safely? 
    • If physical education is outdoors, how big will the group sizes be? 
  • Dual Language: 
    • What happens to Dual Language programs when students are split into remote and in-person cohorts? Many schools only have one DL teacher per grade, making it logistically impossible to continue these programs for all students enrolled.

As you can clearly see, these questions about in-person learning are complex and demand critical answers. There are also unanswered questions about remote learning, however we are confident that teachers can work to address these concerns if we are given the time we need starting NOW to plan for a mostly remote model. 

You can choose remote learning at ANY TIME, but our schools will have more time to plan if you make this choice soon. Please use the link: https://www.nycenet.edu/surveys/Guardian to enroll your child in remote learning if and when you can. Again, we understand this is not possible for every family, but if it is possible for you to make this choice we encourage you to select remote learning for the fall for the safety of our entire community.  

Many families have also asked for help about how to contact elected officials to raise concerns and ideas.  PS 29, in Brooklyn, has launched an email-a-day campaign, and we encourage you to use it as best you see fit.

Finally, we hope you have had a restful summer, and that you have found many moments of joy during this time of continuing uncertainty.  While we are full of questions about the upcoming year, please know that we are eager to meet our new students and work in partnership with you to ensure they have the best experience possible.

Sincerely,

Concerned teachers and MORE members

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