new york city

Councilmember: De Blasio’s School Reopening Was ‘Designed to Fail’

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Thousands of middle- and high-school students reported to classrooms in New York City on Thursday. It’s hardly a traditional start to the school year— students have already been learning remotely. Instead, Thursday’s return marks the start of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “blended learning” plan. Students who opt in to the program head to school on the days they aren’t virtually learning from home. It’s not entirely clear what they’ll find when they walk back through the doors, though, because the reopening plan is mired in chaos and confusion, reflecting de Blasio’s complex strategy for blended learning.

In order for his plan to work, principals must essentially create three groups of teachers: one group for in-person instruction, another for students on the days they learn from home, and a third for students whose parents opt for all-remote classes over the blended model.

That requires teachers — a lot of teachers. And the union representing the city’s school principals and administrators says they have nowhere near the staff they need to make de Blasio’s vision a meaningful reality — going so far as to pass a vote of no confidence in the mayor last Friday. Education workers have a reliable advocate in Councilmember Mark Treyger, a Democrat who chairs the City Council’s Education Committee.

In an interview with Intelligencer on Wednesday, the former high-school history teacher says the mayor’s blended-learning plan is unworkable, starved of resources, and failing students. Treyger repeatedly called out reported plans that might see students still taught virtually when they are in classrooms because of an expected teacher shortage. It all adds up to a model “designed to fail,” he said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Sarah Jones: Blended learning for elementary-school students started earlier this week. What are you hearing from constituents and school workers so far?

Mark Treyger: To this day, we are experiencing continued staff shortages in our school system and in all grades. But the high-school grades are going to be particularly affected by the staffing shortage because in high school — and I’m a former high-school history teacher, so I know a bit about this — you are required to have a license to teach the specific content subject. If a high school has, let’s say, three chemistry teachers, and they’re all out on medical accommodations working from home, you can’t just put a history teacher to teach a chemistry class.

And there is no infinite pool of substitute science teachers in the school system. So what’s happening is that they are simply just shifting personnel to supervise students who are receiving remote instruction from their teacher who’s working from home. I call this “supervised remote instruction.” This is not in-person instruction. When high-school students return for in-person school, they will not be getting in-person teaching. They will be getting an adult who is not licensed to teach them. Or not even licensed to supervise them, because I’m being told now that paraprofessionals are being asked to supervise students in classes, which is against state regulations.

The other issue, and this is affecting elementary-school grades as well, is that we have thousands of kids still without technology. We have thousands of kids still without internet access. The city will tell you that they ordered back in March, which is true, about 300,000 iPads. But some schools had to wait months to receive the iPads, so what they did was they gave out whatever laptops they had. Incoming high-school freshmen who might have gotten a laptop instead of an iPad in middle school had to return the laptop to the school. Now some are entering high school without a laptop at all, and they’re asking their new school for technology, and they don’t have it.

Given the issues you’ve mentioned, do you think it’s feasible to continue with blended learning or would all remote instruction be preferable?

I think that the blended-learning model is a failure and that it was designed to fail. It was not designed to succeed because the city was never realistic about the severe challenges that come with the blended-learning model. Again, it’s very simple to me.

Your model calls for three sets of teachers, but it also requires you to hire thousands more people when many of your existing staff is requesting medical accommodations to work from home. So I don’t understand how they reached this conclusion. I don’t understand why they thought that this was feasible. But it’s just not happening.

I am told now that high schools will be opening their doors. They are not going to deny kids entry, but it won’t be in-person teaching. They’re going to have a random adult watch kids who are working on laptops or an iPad, communicating with their teacher who’s working from home — that is what’s going to happen on Thursday. [Editor’s note: The city claims this practice isn’t universal and will end as staffing shortages are addressed.] That is not the in-person instruction which the mayor promised to the public and misled the public about.

You said this model was “designed to fail.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

The model sounds very lofty. But when you operationalize it and put it in motion, you realize that you need more teachers, substantially more teachers, than the system currently has. What I don’t understand, and what many union officials don’t understand, is when you’re telling the school communities that we’re granting medical accommodations, which I support, why did they feel that they can make up for the loss of teachers? Where are the teachers coming from? Why did they pursue a plan that they knew from the start was not going to operationalize the right way?

So that is why I think it was designed to fail. It was not designed on reality.

You have mentioned the impact that a lack of in-person instruction has on low-income kids in particular. How do you bridge the needs of those children and those families with those of school workers who are worried about the risk inherent in going to work right now? 

That’s a very important question. But I would just note that many school educators and staff are parents too and that they’re facing the same dynamic. One teacher shared with me that she has four children and the cost of child care for her kids exceeds what she brings home in terms of her pay. This is a crisis on top of a crisis here.

I do think that there is a path forward, and a path forward for me is to build trust in our school system, which is shattered right now. And I think that the reason why a lot of staff are requesting medical accommodations is that they’re very nervous about returning to work. This is the same mayor that refused to shut the school system down when the pandemic was clearly taking shape in this city. This is the same mayor that still told them to report to school, knowing that there were infections breaking out in school communities.

Just a few weeks ago, the mayor publicly said on television that he was promising a comprehensive, robust ventilation inspection system to fix any ventilation issues in the City of New York. The following morning, I got photographs and a video of a school called the MLK campus in Manhattan, showing DOE staff waving a piece of toilet paper near a light bulb to see if there’s any air coming out.

So he promised a comprehensive system and schools got toilet-paper tests instead. He promised schools and parents that they can have in-person instruction. But you’re going to have someone babysitting your child, getting remote instruction from a teacher. He promised working parents that he’ll find them child-care options. Many families today are emailing me that they’re not hearing back from the Learning Bridges program, which is that whole promise of child care for kids.

A twofold question for you. The pandemic brings long-standing disparities to the fore. What does this crisis tell us about the state of inequality in New York City? And how should this shape our priorities going forward?

I want to first answer you by giving you a real-life example of what happened at the start of the pandemic. There were certain school districts that come from some of the wealthier Zip Codes in the city, and they had a complaint they were messaging to me and others — that the DOE was not allowing them to use Zoom. And I was conflicted about this because in my district in Coney Island, there are a lot of folks who live in poverty and were still waiting for the iPads that they were promised back in March. This is at the end of April. Meanwhile, other folks are worried about Zoom versus Google Meet. That was very telling to me.

In some communities that were hard hit by COVID-19, the school nurse — if they had one — was the only primary health-care access point for kids and families. So when people say to me, “Mr. Treyger, when do we go back to normal?,” my answer is that there were preexisting conditions plaguing our school system that contributed to the fact that we cannot have a full reopening or a safe reopening. The fact is that we had hundreds of schools without a full-time nurse. We had 700 schools without a full-time social worker.

So it is my vision and my hope that every single school in our public-school system becomes a community school and has full-time social workers, full-time counselors, food pantries, a full-time nurse. We have to do more than just give kids notebooks and pencils. We have to meet the whole needs of the child. I think that this pandemic has really shown clearly that schools are lifelines to communities.

Back to this question of priorities. We’ve been talking about a mayor who ran as a progressive and who just ran for president as a progressive. In your view, how has Bill de Blasio’s tenure changed the way progressives might campaign for city office in the future?

I think your question has the answer embedded in it. You mentioned that he campaigns. There’s a big difference between campaigning and governing. There’s a big difference between advancing these lofty goals and having flashy PowerPoints. The mayor might have had luck with campaigning with some progressive slogans, but it has not been an applied practice for him in the sense that when the rubber hits the road, he’s fallen short.

I think it does a disservice to the progressive movement when you take important issues and make promises and then fail to realize them. So I think that this is a lesson for those who are seeking higher office to be mayor or to be governor or beyond. Be very careful when you pick up the mantle of progressive ideals, because you need to actually keep your promises.

De Blasio’s School Reopening Was ‘Designed to Fail’