Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday the city is moving full steam ahead to reopen public schools in three weeks, and he issued a new, formal pledge to parents and staff to reassure them he would not open school buildings during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic unless they are safe.
De Blasio’s new, formal pledge to parents includes promises he’s made repeatedly in recent days: schools will have masks, sanitizer, and a nurse on campus, among other things. While principals have said they don’t have many of those supplies yet, de Blasio said they will in the next three weeks.
“We are going to make sure these schools are safe and ready,” de Blasio said. “And if we don’t think they’re safe and ready, they won’t open.”
But many on-the-ground educators say they don’t see how it’s possible to have everything in place by September 10th. Growing groups of principals from School Districts 2, 6, 9, 13, 15, expressed deep reservations about the start date. The principals’ and teachers’ unions have both called for a delay.
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said today that city education officials were in talks with their state counterparts about reopening, including the possibility of a waiver to delay the start of school.
What appears to be movement on parallel tracks -- DOE officials pushing forward with reopening plans while exploring the groundwork for a delay -- comes amid mounting pressure from union leaders, school staff, and families who doubt schools can safely reopen by September 10th.
All New York school districts require a state waiver to offer fewer than 180 days of instruction. If schools don’t meet that requirement, they risk losing funding. Asked at the mayor’s daily press conference if the city had requested a waiver, Carranza said it was part of ongoing discussions.
“We are in conversation with the state education department, and I’m also meeting with the other superintendents of the other big five school districts in New York State, and we’re also collaborating on what that could look like,” Carranza said. “So there are active conversations on what that could be. But, again, nothing definitive yet.”
The mayor used Thursday’s briefing to defend his position that schools should reopen on time, saying it’s in the best interest of students. While those opposed to reopening school have received considerable media attention, there are many parents and students who say they’re eager for the structure, socialization and childcare that school provides. De Blasio said that’s what’s driving him forward.
“Kids are suffering right now,” he said. “They need support. They need what educators can give them, they need what positive adult role models and counselors and folks who give them mental health support can give them. They need that desperately. It cannot be done the same way remotely even slightly.”
According to new numbers released this week by the Department of Education, about 30% of families—304,880 students—have now opted for remote learning, and principals say that total is increasing every day. They expect the remaining 70% -- just under 697,008 -- will participate in the hybrid model of in-person learning from one to three days a week and remote learning the other days.
But a new poll from The Education Trust - New York found fewer families of color and lower-income families want to send their children back to school. According to the poll of 804 New York residents, 34% of Black parents said they would be sending a child back to school in person, compared to 84% of white parents. Of families making less than $50,000 a year, 46% were ready to send students back into school buildings, compared to 74% of more affluent families.
Meanwhile, calls to postpone in-person learning have accelerated. On Wednesday afternoon, the powerful teachers union threatened to sue or strike, and urged parents to request all remote-learning.
On Wednesday night, the monthly meeting of the advisory Panel for Education Policy stretched nearly 10 hours as parents, teachers and students testified almost unanimously in support of delays or fully remote learning. A nurse worried her office would be overwhelmed by symptomatic students. A teacher said several of her students lost parents to covid, and she didn’t want to see any more. A high school student said she felt she and her classmates were being treated as part of a public health experiment.
“What we heard tonight was an almost unified message,” said panel member Tom Sheppard. “And that message was that our school buildings should not open on September 10th.”
Another element to consider: possibly devastating cuts in state funding. Governor Cuomo has said for months that he’s counting on another federal stimulus package to balance the state budget, and if one doesn’t come through, he’ll have to cut all local budgets, including schools, by 20%.
Carranza told parents at the PEP virtual meeting that if the DOE budget was slashed by that much, and the state does not authorize the city to borrow more money, there’s no way schools can afford to open. “If we get the cuts that the governor is talking about game over,” Carranza said. “We are in complete remote learning mode. We will not open.”
With reporting from Sophia Chang