In explaining his decision to switch reopening schools to a staggered plan, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that he was persuaded by one main issue: the shortage of teachers and educators necessary to staff New York City’s 1,600 public schools in the new blended learning model.
The decision came after a three-hour meeting Wednesday with the leaders of the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators principals unions, where de Blasio said he realized—after weeks of many administrators and teachers calling attention to the very issue—“the staffing allows for everything else to work.”
“The meeting yesterday really focused on where there were still needs and where we had to beef up that number, and we went through a very specific process to determine what was the right additional number of educators needed,” de Blasio said at his Thursday press briefing.
The city will hire more teachers, including graduate students specializing in education and adjunct instructors from CUNY to bolster its substitute teacher ranks. De Blasio said an additional 2,000 teachers will start Monday, and another 2,500 will be added to help staffing gaps at 3-K, Pre-K, District 75, K-5 and K-8 schools.
On Monday, 3-K, Pre-K, and District 75 students will report for in-person learning; K-5 and K-8 schools will begin their in-person learning on September 29th, and middle school and high school students will return on October 1st.
The city is paying for these additional teachers by “making available an additional $50 million...and we’ll obviously find savings and we'll reflect those in the future financial plans,” said deputy First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan at the press briefing, though he did not explain where the additional $50 million will come from.
Some of the recent changes to the live instruction components of the blended learning model were because of the staffing problem, the mayor said. “We changed the model to synchronous learning for the initial period to relieve some of that pressure,” de Blasio said.
Under an agreement with the UFT, teachers are only required to teach either in-person or the remote online courses. But that stipulation immediately created a problem of having enough personnel to cover the growth in the number of classes, as about 42 percent of the school system’s 1.1 million students have now enrolled in full-time remote learning.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at the press briefing an apt illustration of the dilemma was the “snow day” scenario, where in pre-pandemic times an understaffed school might have gathered students in an auditorium.
“When you don't have enough staff to deal with the number of children, you put children in large gatherings and put teachers in front of them. When it became apparent the snow day scenario cannot be used in the pandemic—you cannot put large numbers of children in a room, in an auditorium, and therefore you had to have a teacher in front of every classroom,” Mulgrew said. “When the Mayor saw that it was clear, at that moment he said, ‘this is not acceptable, we are not going to let children in schools be put in that position.’ So, we have to figure out how we're going to get to a better place, because this is not acceptable.”
Other staffing complications: the number of educators who received medical accommodations to work from home—about 25 percent of the total approximately 75,000 teachers in New York City—and the growing numbers of remote-only students, said Council of School Supervisors & Administrators president Mark Cannizzaro.
“Not only do we have a staffing issue, a serious staffing issue that we're trying to mitigate against, but we also have numbers that are changing every single day—students opting from in-person learning to remote learning, teachers and other staff members receiving accommodations that hadn't previously been approved and are now being approved,” Cannizzarro, whose union represents the principals responsible for staffing decisions, said.
“Our folks have been reprogramming their school buildings, I'm sorry, every single day, if not twice a day, since May or June. So, there have been so many things, so many moving parts," he added. "And when my folks continued to tell me that they still don't have the staffing that they need, to me that was the big red flag that if...we have students entering buildings without a teacher that is simply not going to work.”
Cannizzarro had said one point that 10,000 extra teachers would be needed to carry out this school year, and the reopening of middle and high schools on October 1st would surely require yet more teachers than this initial infusion of 4,500 teachers, he said. “The 4,500 number is to get through the 29th, with the K-5 group,” Cannizzarro said. “There will be additional need when we get to the middle and high schools.”
That’s one of the main issues that Councilman Mark Treyger, a former schoolteacher and head of the City Council’s Education Committee remains worried about.
“So this issue is very pressing in high schools,” Treyger said in a phone interview Thursday. “High schools have a certain dynamic that is important to recognize...when you work in a high school, you have to be licensed to teach the specific content areas. You can't just move staff around.”
“In one case in a Brooklyn high school I spoke with...all of their chemistry teachers are working remote,” Treyger said. “So their chemistry class in person is being supervised by a physical education teacher.”