Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday that the reopening of New York City public schools for in-person learning, which was meant to happen this Monday, would be pushed back several days for most students. The last-minute announcement marks the second time de Blasio has delayed the start date. Under the new plan, preschool students and students with special needs will begin attending in-person classes on September 21. Everyone else will phase in on a rolling basis, with middle schools and high schools now scheduled to open for in-person classes on October 1.
De Blasio’s announcement followed days of protests from some members of the United Federation of Teachers. As NBC New York reported on Monday, 55 schools-based employees of the Department of Education have tested positive for COVID-19. While that’s a small fraction of the 17,000 workers tested for the virus, the result did stoke worry among school workers that the premature reopening of classrooms would lead to further illness or even create a cluster of positive cases.
During Thursday’s press conference, de Blasio cited those school-worker concerns as a reason to once again delay the reopening of schools. But unions for teachers and school principals had warned for weeks that schools didn’t have the resources needed to safely reopen. The widespread absence of adequate ventilation featured prominently in letters to the mayor from the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, as well as in statements from the UFT. The Department of Education, meanwhile, insisted that the majority of the city’s schools were safe to reopen, an assertion questioned by some experts.
At a training organized by members of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, a social-justice-oriented caucus within the UFT, an industrial hygienist said the DOE’s precautionary measures were inadequate, as are the professional standards upon which those measures were based. “They say, ‘Well, you know, all you need is a little open window, a little fresh air, and people will survive’ and that’s very true,” the hygienist, Monona Rossol, said in remarks reported by Gothamist. “But they won’t survive this bug because this bug is a contaminant that is very small and is created in the space. So if you recirculate the air … you’re just running the damn stuff around the building. It’s just a really bad system; we have to literally walk away from the [American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers] standard.” (Members of the MORE caucus have consistently pressured UFT to endorse an all-remote start to the school year.)
De Blasio, meanwhile, plowed ahead with plans to reopen despite widespread worker dissatisfaction and the threat of a strike-authorization vote within the UFT. That left school workers and parents alike in an unenviable spot, with weeks of uncertainty creating stress and frustration for both groups. Now, thanks to the mayor’s last-minute decision — many parents and school workers reportedly found out about Thursday’s new delay from Twitter — New York City parents must scramble to rearrange their lives around a phased reopening of school. At the same time, teachers and other workers are left wondering whether it’ll really be safe to report back to buildings later this month and in October — or whether they’ll have to protest all over again a few weeks from now.
After mishandling the pandemic in the spring, only to largely ignore NYPD abuses during the George Floyd protests this summer, de Blasio’s progressive reputation was already in tatters. But he seems determined to destroy whatever’s left of it. Worried school workers and frustrated parents may not always agree on how to best educate students in a pandemic. Right now, though, they have a common enemy, and that’s de Blasio himself.