Teachers and principals are calling for a delay to New York City’s school year. Union leaders representing both groups have written to Mayor Bill de Blasio with questions they say the city has yet to answer. But de Blasio won’t budge. The mayor showed little patience for anxious teachers on Thursday. “Unless folks have a medical accommodation, their job is to come in and serve our kids,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “And I’m convinced that’s what they’re going to do because that’s what they’ve done their whole lives.”
Unions “know we’ll only open our doors if we meet the strictest standards set by any school district in the nation — and that protecting health and safety has always driven our work together,” the city’s Department of Education told WABC 7 in a statement. As proof of this commitment to safety, de Blasio used Thursday’s press conference to announce that every school building will now have a certified nurse on duty. But that might not be enough to satisfy rank-and-file educators, who have little reason to believe the mayor has learned from the mistakes of the spring.
If there’s bad blood between teachers and de Blasio, the events of March have something to do with it. The mayor’s much-criticized decision to delay a citywide shutdown affected teachers, too, who were expected to report to work as deaths from COVID-19 ticked steadily upward. By the time de Blasio finally closed schools on March 15, a week after Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, the city had already become a national epicenter for the virus. Fifty school workers had died from the virus by mid-April, a figure that included 21 teachers. Though it’s difficult to tell how many workers contracted the virus in school buildings prior to closure, as opposed to community spread, de Blasio’s delay diminished his credibility.
To bolster his case, de Blasio points to the city’s positive testing rate for COVID-19, which remains low overall despite a recent spike in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. But as September 10 approaches, teachers and principals have complained that the city’s reopening plans are light on detail. The UFT’s president, Michael Mulgrew, had complained to NY1 on Monday that schools still didn’t have the cleaning supplies or protective gear required to safely reopen. Mark Cannizzaro, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, or CSA, told Gothamist on Wednesday that his union is “still without sufficient answers to many of the important safety and instructional questions we’ve raised on behalf of school leaders and those they serve.” Additional nurses, while beneficial, only resolve one such question from unions. The city’s public schools often have poor ventilation and social distancing can be difficult, two major risk factors for the spread of COVID-19. Cannizzaro had highlighted those problems in his letter to de Blasio, and criticized city education officials for their unresponsiveness. “How will school communities be informed of repairs to ventilation systems?” he queried. “When will schools receive PPE, thermometers, signage, hand sanitizers and cleaning materials to comply with the safety protocols?” Nurses can’t make up for other widespread structural deficiencies.
That ought to complicate de Blasio’s reopening plan — even if the mayor has the support of many parents, as he claims. According to a DOE survey, three–quarters of parents opted for a mix of in-person and virtual learning over an all-remote option. But there’s a possibility the survey overestimated the real number of parents who prefer in-person instruction. As Gothamist previously reported, children whose parents didn’t return the form were automatically registered for hybrid learning. Around 80 percent of the students who registered for the hybrid plan fall into that category. Hybrid learning can’t guarantee normalcy, anyway. If a resurgence does happen — and the possibility seems likelier than de Blasio credits — classrooms could close once again.
With less than a month to go before school buildings are scheduled to open, de Blasio’s thrown a gauntlet. Teachers might respond in kind, though this doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a formal strike. The Taylor Law restricts the right of public employees to strike in New York. The UFT’s leadership also trends more moderate than some peer institutions like the Chicago Teachers Union, which recently won a delayed start to in-person learning by threatening to hold a strike-authorization vote. That moderate tone, however, may be shifting thanks to de Blasio and the Department of Education:
Even if unions don’t authorize a strike, teachers could protest in other ways. They could organize sick-outs on their own. If de Blasio insists on his September 10 start date, he might convince them they’ve got no other choice.