Several months before the start of the school year, Mayor Bill de Blasio came up with a plan to get schools open again — or, more specifically, an alternative to a plan. At a May meeting, he “pitched an idea of a contest for coming up with the best reopening plan,” The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday. But schools needed a plan by early June, sources told the Journal, and the mayor was already behind schedule. The Education Sector Advisory Council, which he had convened in May to shape the city’s reopening strategy, broke up weeks later. Members blamed City Hall: They advised, but de Blasio didn’t listen.
De Blasio’s contest never came to fruition. But it’s never been clearer that, for de Blasio, strategy was subordinate to a single predetermined goal: reopening classrooms for hybrid instruction in September, preferably without spending a lot of money to repair buildings or make new hires. In the resulting chaos, de Blasio has twice delayed the onset of hybrid learning for most students. (Elementary-school students who registered for hybrid learning are scheduled to start tomorrow; middle- and high-school students will start on October 1.) On Sunday, the union for New York City school principals passed a vote of no confidence in the mayor and the city’s school chancellor, Richard Carranza.
A vote of no confidence is not the same thing as a strike authorization vote. The president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, Mark Cannizzaro, told the New York Times that a strike wasn’t even on the table. They’re asking instead for a state takeover of the city’s public schools, which would wrest control of the system from the mayor’s office. Citing widespread staffing shortages, the principals’ union says the school system still doesn’t have the staff it needs to carry out the hybrid learning plan the city devised in conjunction with the United Federation of Teachers.
Leaders from both the UFT and the CSA criticized de Blasio’s lackluster preparation efforts over the summer, but school administrators felt sidelined by the August deal the UFT struck with the city. De Blasio’s progress on addressing the safety concerns raised by both unions left the staffing issue unresolved, Cannizzaro told the Times. He estimated that schools need around 1,000 extra teachers by Tuesday (which is tomorrow, lest we forget), plus additional hires for middle schools and high schools, which are scheduled to shift to hybrid instruction later this week.
The UFT defended its deal with the city in a statement to the Times, though some factions of its rank-and-file members are dissatisfied with the union’s approach. A Twitter account for the union’s MORE caucus, a social-justice-focused group that is highly critical of UFT president Michael Mulgrew’s Unity caucus, expressed guarded support for the principals’ no-confidence vote.
Amid all this labor-world tension, however, de Blasio enjoys a certain preeminence. He holds ultimate decision-making power and is thus the supreme villain in the story. Mayoral incompetence appears to be a point of unity for school workers, advocates, and parents. “There are no easy answers … but the failure here has been a failure to anticipate the obvious,” David Banks, the president of the Eagle Academy Foundation and a former member of the advisory council, told the Journal. De Blasio “called for the second delay because they were grappling with issues that they should have known and thought about four months ago,” Banks said, adding that he sent de Blasio a memo on June 2 featuring interviews with more than two dozen principals warning of pending staffing shortages.
Meanwhile the pandemic continues. Clusters of COVID-19 cases in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods helped push the borough’s test-positivity rate back up to 2 percent on Monday. That’s well below the mayor’s threshold for reopening schools for hybrid instruction, which is a 3 percent citywide positivity rate. But if rates continue to rise, parents and school workers might be hit with a third delay. And that, too, is something de Blasio may have been able to prevent. Community advocates have criticized the mayor for inadequate outreach to the largely Hasidic neighborhoods where cases have begun to rise. In a similar respect, the mayor’s approach to reopening schools — seek out experts, do not listen to them, claim out-of-control circumstances when complaints get loud — almost precisely resembles his initial response to the pandemic. If de Blasio learned anything from his springtime failures, it doesn’t show. Children, parents, and school workers will pay the price.