On August 19th, over 200 students, parents, school staff and community members signed up to speak against the unsafe and reckless reopening of school buildings at a monthly meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP). Education justice advocates dubbed it the #PeoplesPEP. The PEP is composed of 15 appointed members and the schools chancellor. Each borough president appoints 1 member and the mayor appoints the remaining 9 members. The only elected representative is 1 member chosen by presidents of the city’s Community Education Councils (CECs). The chancellor serves as an ex-officio, non-voting member while the remaining members are charged with approving high impact changes to city-wide education policy including contracts with vendors, school closings and charter co-locations.
Over the duration of the record-breaking 9.5 hour meeting that wrapped close to 4:00am, parents, teachers and community members unanimously spoke against reopening on September 10th. They demanded the city to open schools only when it’s safe and to start academic instruction fully remote with exceptions for high needs students and alternative models for in-person learning. There is simply not enough funding to make the infrastructure updates the buildings have needed for years nor reach adequate safety measures such as robust testing and contact tracing to protect us from COVID19. Schools chancellor Richard Carranza should be lobbying Albany to tax the rich in NY rather than publishing these half baked reopening plans. The hybrid plan in no way makes child care easy for parents and the DOE must stop manipulating the data from parent surveys. And, it is impossible for the DOE to claim it is priortizing culturally relevant and anti-racist curricula/trainings while ignoring how reopening puts low income black and brown communities the most at risk of premature death.
The meeting began with students as young as 3rd grade expressing their concerns about a silent lunch time and lack of recess. One high schooler questioned the panel: “Why am I having to spend my evening trying to convince our leaders to do the right thing?” Others spoke about losing family and neighbors to COVID19 and fearing their friends could experience the same pain should schools reopen before it’s safe.
When parents spoke to racist harassment they had endured from a principal in PS 132 in District 14 and atrocious neglect of sexual assault cases, Chancellor Carranza went as far as to viciously cut them off, yelling that their claims were slander. Parents, who were mostly women of color, speaking to these experiences reported they had gone through the regular channels to report this abuse and had gotten no reprieve. Certainly, the Chancellor’s inflammatory response only extended the trauma they have already endured in the NYC Public School system.
Duly heart-wrenching and inspiring, the People’s PEP message was clear: in spite of a raging pandemic and a massive failure of leadership, school communities will break night and fight together to have their voices heard, by any means necessary.