Every time the news came, the mayor winced. First Washington, D.C., announced its schools would start the year closed, then Los Angeles and San Diego, then Chicago. By August, New York City was the only big city school system in the country slated to open for in-person classes this fall, doing so over the howling objections of many teachers. That same month, some of them marched across Lower Manhattan holding mock caskets, accusing the mayor of a disregard for not just their lives but the lives of the city’s schoolchildren. “We demand safe schools,” they chanted.
And so when the mayor announced last month that schools would close again after just two months of in-person learning, and announced no plans to reopen, it seemed as if he were unwilling to cross the powerful teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, and sacrificed the schooling of hundreds of thousands of children who had opted to return to in-person classes. The city had hit the 3 percent threshold of positive tests that de Blasio said necessitated closure of schools, and with the second wave of the pandemic bearing down on the city, it seemed likely that New York classrooms would stay shut, joining big cities across the country in consigning students to Zoom school until a vaccine arrived.
But then on Sunday, Mayor de Blasio did something shocking. He announced that elementary schools would reopen. And not just in the hybrid “two days on, three days off” model the city had been operating on, but every day — regardless of what the city’s infection rate was.
For a mayor who has been accused of paying less than serious attention to mechanics of city government over his seven years of office, the reopening of city schools on Monday will be a remarkable achievement, one that aides and advisers believe could be a legacy-making move, akin to the creation of a citywide pre-kindergarten in his first year. Against all odds, this chaotic school system, which with 1.1 million students is the largest in the country by far, would be holding in-person classes while their smaller counterparts around the country teach over Google Classroom.
Advisers say that it is precisely what can make the mayor so maddening to so many that enabled him to pull it off: a certitude in the rightness of his cause, an inability to pay much heed to critics, especially on Twitter and in the media, and a bullheadedness that insists on doing the same thing over and over against calls to change course.
“You know how all you guys criticize him for going to the Park Slope Y and he just kept on going?” said one. “Well it’s the same thing here but it’s keeping city schools open. For better or worse the guy just doesn’t care what people think, only this time it’s not about running for president or going to the gym but about opening up schools.”
De Blasio cannot run for reelection next year thanks to the city’s term-limit law, giving him freedom to ignore the calls of interest groups. And when aides pushed back on the wisdom of the move, the mayor pointed to his own daily pummeling in the press, as if to say the knocks he was going to get weren’t worse than the ones he’d gotten. “I’m willing to do it,” he said at one staff meeting as his staff ticked through the criticisms.
The decision to reopen schools comes at a time when President-elect Joe Biden is urging school districts across the country to do the same, and when Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s leading infectious-disease expert, says that schools should open before bars are permitted to. Across Europe, even as countries have gone into strict lockdowns, schools — and in particular elementary schools, where the rates of infection remain low and where online schooling isn’t as effective — have remained open.
Over the summer, the national teachers union had set a 5 percent positive-test threshold; de Blasio favored a far stricter 3 percent test threshold — an effort, aides said, to show teachers that he was serious about safety. Still, the United Federation of Teachers head Michael Mulgrew said there were still not enough safety measures in place, and threatened a strike. Although many political professionals have come to feel that the UFT’s political prowess is overstated, they were still better organized than parents who wanted schools to open, and many of the candidates running to replace de Blasio in 2021 echoed the union’s concerns. “Let’s listen to teachers,” said Scott Stringer, the city comptroller and a mayoral front-runner.
Many educators wanted to return to the classroom, but the loudest and most organized faction wanted the schools to remain closed, and by aligning himself with them, Mulgrew quieted down his most persistent critics in the union. With no countervailing force of parents or politicians looking to keep schools open, for a moment last summer it seemed as if one faction of the union was in charge of city education policy.
De Blasio relented and agreed to delay school openings and further increase safety protocols, including additional testing, ventilation, and cleaning of schools. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of students returned to school. But many hundreds of thousands elected to go remote full time. The racial breakdown has been stark and unexpected. Middle and upper-middle class white students have been the most eager to return, and poorer students of color have mostly stuck to stay-at-home learning — a product, experts say, of the neighborhoods where the pandemic hit hardest.
The de Blasio administration meanwhile convened a situation room staffed by personnel from the mayor’s office, the Department of Education, the Office of Emergency Management, and other agencies to track outbreaks and close schools accordingly. Slowly, the city’s test-positivity rate ticked upward from its August ebb, even as the rate in schools remained below 0.25 percent, meaning that it was safer to be in school than not to be.
When the 3 percent threshold was reached, the mayor elected to close schools as he pledged he would. This time it was parents who had been sending their kids to school who erupted, and the 2021 mayoral candidates followed suit. “This is a bad blow to working families across NYC. Parents heard no public-health expert call for closure & got no real notice,” Maya Wiley, a former de Blasio administration official now running herself, wrote on Twitter. “We need health-informed decision-making, not artificial triggers. And now we need a plan for reopening schools safely!”
Aides said that de Blasio had been genuinely worried back in August that if he pushed to open schools that teachers may in fact not show up for work. The strict 3 percent threshold was to convince them that he was serious about safety, and once the city crossed that threshold, he would have invited a backlash from them if schools remained open. Instead, with five school days before Thanksgiving, he closed schools, allowing the city to create further safety protocols, including increased testing, in order to open five days a week.
This time, Mulgrew signed off right away. Liat Olenick, a Brooklyn teacher and UFT chapter leader said that it was because the teachers who raised their objections over the summer were now too engaged in their classrooms to object. “The people who are really involved over the summer are the people who work really hard for their kids and that is why they care about their schools and their community,” she said. “The union isn’t feeling the pressure now because teachers are working.”
Meanwhile, the city is facing a yawning budget deficit, and getting teachers in the classroom is a way, union officials say, to potentially stave off cuts to the Department of Education. After schools closed, dozens of parents and kids marched on City Hall, demanding that de Blasio reverse course and open them, chanting “Kids Back in School!” and “Schools are safe!” City officials say that the public mood has shifted now, and that the union needed to follow suit. “Mulgrew did not want to take the heat for the reason the schools are closed,” said one.
The mayor has come under enormous criticism, meanwhile limiting the students who will be able to return next week to only those that have already signed-up for in-person classes, and for not focusing more on special needs and underprivileged students who elected to continue distance learning. Middle and high schools will remain closed well into next year.
“He has not gone far enough and this has not been an even and equitable rollout,” said Mark Treygar, a Brooklyn city councilman and the head of the education committee. “The mayor wanted to get to say ‘I opened the biggest school system in the country’ as if it were some kind of shiny toy.”