New York City schools are racing to hire enough teachers to greet students as they return to classrooms next week. Elementary schools are scheduled to reopen to in-person students on Tuesday, and middle and high schools on Thursday.
“It’s a major challenge,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, told Gothamist/WNYC in an interview on Friday. “But if we continue the way we’re going, I’m optimistic.”
On Friday morning, Mulgrew said 500 of 800 elementary public schools were fully staffed, and administrators will be working through the weekend to fill remaining vacancies at every school.
“We seem to have the number of substitutes we need,” he said. “We believe we have enough capacity.”
A curt Mayor Bill de Blasio declined on Friday to share how many teachers had been hired so far. “We’ve got a process,” he said. “When we have every site filled … we’ll announce that number.”
Speaking on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, he said the schools were on track to open next week. “We are getting the people we need in place. Period.”
Some principals concur, saying they are finally getting the additional personnel they need. Michael Perlberg, principal of M.S. 839 in Brooklyn, said he filled the last of three vacancies late last week, shortly after students had already started orientation.
“It’s a really challenging situation to be scrambling like this,” he said. “Teachers are not widgets and school communities are not factories.”
Other principals said they’re still struggling to make the numbers work. A principal in Queens who asked not to be identified because he was speaking out against the city Department of Education said he’s only been able to hire two of the 23 teachers he requested. He plans to cover vacancies for in-person classes with substitutes, but doesn’t have enough money to keep the substitutes on the payroll all year, and it’s unclear whether the subs’ specialties will match the courses he needs to cover.
As for remote students, he said he has no choice but to increase class sizes, with some nearing 40 students. At other schools, parents have reported remote class sizes topping 50 or 60 students.
“I’m afraid it’s going to crash and burn,” the Queens principal said of the hybrid plan. “There aren’t enough teachers.”
He added, "We're not doing what's best for children."
"According to New York City principals, there is still a significant need at the elementary level, and the city has again assured us they will meet that need," Craig DiFolco, a spokesperson for the principals' union, the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, said on Friday.
Principals have warned of a staffing crisis for months. De Blasio said he only realized the gravity of the issue last week—prompting him to delay in-person school for the second time. That’s when he promised union leaders there would be money to hire 2500 more teachers, on top of the initial 2000 additional teachers.
The DOE has not said exactly how the new employees will be paid for but allocated $13 million to schools last week to help with staffing. Mulgrew said principals have been given some additional money, and he assumed funding was coming from the city’s reserves.
Administrators said the staffing problem comes down to basic math. The city’s hybrid learning plan envisions three sets of instructors: for students coming into classrooms, for those students on the days they’re at home, and for the separate group of students who are fully remote.
A deal with the UFT further complicated things by demanding that principals should try not to assign the same staff to both in-person and remote classes. This has led to an even lesser guarantee that blended learning students will receive live instruction.
Some educators said they couldn’t understand why it took city officials so long to grasp the severity of the staffing problem, causing administrators to rush to onboard new employees as school is underway. They said plugging in substitutes to fill gaps at the last minute is far from ideal.
“The fact that the DOE and the mayor are so late to figuring out the math on this is just puzzling to me,” said Sally Beane, a teacher in Queens.
“Bringing someone into a school community is a complex and challenging thing,” said Perlberg, the principal at M.S. 839 in Brooklyn. He said he was glad to be able to fill his vacancies with strong candidates from a pool of teachers excessed from other schools because of budget cuts.
Administrators said they’re trying to be creative to serve students, and have asked their staff to be flexible. In many cases, administrators have asked teachers to do a combination of in-person and remote learning, even though the agreement with the UFT discourages it. At some schools, students will be logging into remote classes even when they’re in school buildings, though the DOE said that should be the “exception not the rule.”
Meanwhile, multiple teachers told Gothamist/WNYC they’re teaching subjects outside their certifications: An elementary school science teacher is teaching pre-K, a computer/technology teacher is teaching 4th grade, a math teacher is teaching Spanish.
In a special education class that requires two teachers, a single teacher with dual certification said she’s being counted as two separate people. “It’s the Wild West, we’re totally [do-it-yourself-]ing this thing,” she said.
But for some educators, the crisis provides an unexpected but welcome opportunity. In late August, Amy Dawson, an instructional coach at the Office of School Wellness, received an email informing her she was being deployed back to a classroom, one of approximately 2,000 central staffers dispatched to schools this fall. She said she was nervous about returning to a job she left six years ago, teaching middle school health, but she’s embracing it.
“I'm really excited to have this opportunity to take everything that I've been learning at the central office and apply it with students,” she said, adding that her principal and colleagues have been welcoming.
“The principal, everybody is 100% focused on making sure we have enough PPE, making sure the building is clean and safe. The ventilation, everything is taken care of,” she said. “So I can walk in here and not be fearful.”
With classes underway, she’s doing her best to master Google Classroom and other web-based platforms, and is asking her students for assistance when she needs it. “They know it better than I do,” she said. “So how exciting will that be to have them take on some leadership in the classroom and teach us?”
Dawson said it’s particularly rewarding to return to teaching health right now. “We need to be talking about infectious disease, stress, trauma, racism,” she said. “That’s what health teachers do. And I can’t wait to do it again.”