de Blasio’s Latest School Reopening Plan Is Inequitable and Dangerous

Today, educators, students, and families across New York City found out – yet again over social media – that some NYC public schools would be reopening: 3K, Pre-K, and elementary schools December 7th and schools for District 75 students December 10th.

This latest announcement is largely thanks to public pressure from a small, vocal group of parents representing a subset of blended learning in-person families, even though blended in-person students make up only 26% of the school’s system at this time. According to this new reopening plan, schools will reopen next week for about 190,000 students who opted into blended learning by Nov. 15th. We don’t yet know how many schools will expand in person learning to 5 days given staffing and budget constraints. We do know that our remote students deserve better and that teachers and school staff are not expendable. 

Yet again Mayor de Blasio has ignored the vast majority of NYC schools students, as over 700,000 students are learning fully remotely and have been since September. We continue to demand the devices, broadband and WiFi Internet access, staffing, and resources needed to make remote learning work for our students. We support the current lawsuit pending the DOE to demand free and accessible WIFI for all students living in NYC shelters. Students who are learning fully remotely deserve the same support, funding, attention, and resources that are being disproportionately allocated to in-person learners because of the Mayor’s inequitable approach to reopening. 

The Mayor’s proposed new plan disproportionately benefits white students, as, according to the city’s numbers, nearly three-quarters of Asian students, 54% of Black and 52% of Latinx students opted for remote learning, while only about 40% of White students did so. This means that white students, who make up 15% of all NYC schools students, will be overrepresented in this new in-person cohort. This is deeply frustrating. We should be prioritizing minimal in-person services for the students who NEED it most, not for those whose families are the most privileged and powerful. We stand in solidarity with families who chose remote learning and still need additional support, knowing that COVID19 has disproportionately affected communities of color.

Beyond what it means for resource allocation, this announcement is unfair to those families who chose fully remote learning based on a plan that the Mayor has now abandoned. This change in learning models after the opt-in deadline is deceitful and unfair to families across New York City. 

The Mayor’s proposed plan is not only inequitable, it is unsafe. Reopening schools a week after Thanksgiving and just weeks before the winter holiday break when students will inevitably travel is dangerous. New York is currently experiencing the highest COVID19 cases, hospitalization, and death rates since April 2020. And this time around, we don’t have medical staff to support, as there are now widespread medical staff shortages throughout the country. The safe choice would be to wait until January to consider reopening school buildings for students based on need, and to give time for students and families to quarantine to prevent COVID19 spread. It would also be safer to phase in reopening at a minimum of two-week intervals to ensure we are testing accurately and can reasonably expand this model without overwhelming the system.

While we applaud the change that most students and staff complete consent forms for testing prior to re-entering buildings and random weekly testing of 20% of students and staff commence, we are concerned that 3K, Pre-K, and kindergarten students will not be asked to test even though young children still get infected with and transmit coronavirus. As of Nov. 21st children 0-4 had a positivity rate of 4.74%, the highest rate of any age range in the city, and children 5-12 with the third highest rate at 3.38%. The in-school positivity numbers that Mayor de Blasio touted in the past were based on a flawed testing system where schools could only test students with consent forms for testing, which, as of early November was only 15% of all in-person students. 

Mayor de Blasio also ended the 3% threshold for school closures without making clear plans for future school closures. Chancellor Carranza’s email to staff shortly after the Mayor’s announcement stated schools would not reopen in state-designated Red or Orange Zones; however, we know that COVID19 does not respect zip code or zone boundaries, especially as students, families, and schools staff go back and forth between zip codes for school, and especially now when COVID19 rates are the highest since April 2020. There are currently zip codes across NYC with COVID19 positivity rates above 8% but not designated as a Red or Orange zone, showing further problems with the city/state plan. Moreover, rates for school closures due to COVID-19 infections were already going up prior to the closure of schools Thurs. Nov. 19th. On Thurs. Nov. 12th 3.8% of all school buildings were shut due to COVID19 cases; that number went up to 8% Tues. Nov. 17th and 9% Wed. Nov. 18th; had schools been open Fri. Nov. 20th 10% of all NYC school buildings would have closed. School closures already made the NYC schools system unstable for in-person learners and staff who wondered when their schools would close again or reopen again, and many families and staff reported lack of clarity on whether their schools would remain open or closed given COVID19 cases. Many families and staff members have also criticized the lack of contact testing and tracing or being informed in a timely manner about cases within their schools, some schools finding out as many as 10 days after the fact. This not only affects in-person learners but remote learners whose schedules may be affected by the staffing and schedule changes created by this instability. 

Meanwhile this announcement does not address the wide range of learning and working conditions that have been worsened due to the variety of models operating in schools. Many families across New York City have issues with the instability and chaos wrought by changing in-person models due to constant closing and reopening of schools, as well as ballooning class sizes for remote students. The impact of instability generally due to the pandemic compounded by the waffling nature of the Mayor’s decision making continues to traumatize our students, staff, and families. Our union walked back the initial guarantee that teachers would not be made to teach both in-person and remote students, and thus many of our students go days without direct instruction or contact from educators.

This announcement also does nothing to address our concerns about adequate ventilation, especially as it gets colder outside and since our students eat breakfast and lunch unmasked in classrooms. Because of the need for open windows for ventilation in schools, in absence of the correct filters and HVAC systems needed to bring fresh air into classrooms, students and staff are freezing in classrooms across the city, well below the 68.5 degrees recommended by the World Health Organization, and this will only get worse with lowering temperatures. Department of Education ventilation surveys only show whether classrooms have operational windows, supply and exhaust fans but do not show air change rates or whether MERV-13 or higher filters exist in classrooms, which, according to industrial hygienist Monona Rossol, need to be in place to stop spread of COVID19. Chancellor Carranza and our union have committed to getting some resources needed for adequate ventilation in our schools, which is a good step towards making in-person learning safe. Lastly, COVID19 airborne particles can spread throughout a room regardless of social distancing protocols if people share the same space for hours at a time: classroom procedures need to be updated to reflect the science.

We are disappointed that the UFT has backtracked on its promises once again in this pandemic. First, we were told schools would not reopen without federal funding from the HEROES Act. Then we were told each school would have a 50-point checklist and all points must be met before reopening. We were told in-person students must submit a permission slip for COVID testing or go full-remote. We were told 2 or more COVID cases in a building would lead to a 14-day school shutdown. We were told if the city average rate of COVID was 3%, schools would be closed. We were told Visual Content Specialists (VCS) would be hired to upload online curriculum, even though school librarians are able to take on such responsibilities; not one VCS has been hired. We were also promised teachers would not have to teach both in-person and remote students at the same time, even though many do so today. How can we trust our union leadership after all of these broken promises?

Across the country, almost 200,000 people are diagnosed daily with COVID19 and over 250,000 people have died from COVID, tens of thousands here in NYC. We should err on the side of caution, not risk, when making school plans for children and their education, while also seeking meaningful input from schools staff, students, and families that represent the vast majority of NYC schools. As Dr. Leana Wen recently wrote, “Without a national mandate for regular testing and trusted reporting, we simply won’t have evidence that there isn’t greater transmission in schools. As the aphorism goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We need much more support on the local, state, and federal levels to support our students’ learning and our communities’ recovery, both in-person and remote.

Moving forward, we MUST prioritize the needs of our most vulnerable students, namely our homeless students, early childhood, students with disabilities, English Language learners, and students of color. 

MORE-UFT demands Mayor de Blasio and the NYC Department of Education:

  • Follow the science in a pandemic. Focus on public safety;
  • Prioritize the students that need in-person options the most, specifically homeless students, early childhood, and students with disabilities for any in-person option;
  • Clarity and commitment to procedures for school closures and reopening;
  • Enact protocols and transparency for when areas of New York City are declared Red or Orange Zones and for state and local officials to close schools according to COVID19 rates and spread within schools
  • Continue closing school buildings when there are 2 or more cases within school buildings; timely updates from city officials, Test & Trace, NYC Health & Hospitals, and the Situation Room to ensure school populations are informed of cases in a timely manner;
  • Make clear plans that incorporate input from schools staff and families representing the vast majority of students and information shared in a timely fashion so families and staff can adequately prepare for shifts in learning
  • Only use DOE buildings with HVAC and MERV 13 filters for in-person learning;
  • Invest in staff, tech support, technologies, devices, access to broadband Internet, and training for the best remote learning possible for the vast majority of students who have opted for full-remote learning.
  • Allocate staff and resources fairly and equitably so that remote class sizes allow for a robust, differentiated learning experience
  • Continue a moratorium on evictions to support students and families struggling economically during this pandemic
  • Hire and resource counselors, social workers, and other mental health practitioners to support students and families in crisis
  • Fully fund our schools, which means taxing the rich and reinstating billions of dollars owed to NYC public schools

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