NYC Teachers and Parents Are Questioning a Return to School

Issue 257

Their safety concerns are well-founded.

Katya Schwenk Aug 3, 2020

Each night at dinner, Jake Jacobs sits down to the grave disparities in New York’s public schools.

Jacobs is a middle school art teacher at Bronx Park Middle School where 93 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. His wife, however, teaches at a school in one of Westchester’s most affluent school districts, giving classes to children from some of the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Both school districts plan to reopen in the fall. Yet the disparities in the resources they have to do so, Jacobs says, are like “night and day.”

‘This is our life. This is much bigger than things we’ve fought for in the past.’

In the spring, he said, the Westchester district responded rapidly to the initial spread of the coronavirus, shuttering its schools on March 8. New York City did not close down its school system until a full week later. The city’s delay came at a serious cost. At least 74 Department of Education employees have died of COVID-19, including a disproportionate number of teachers’ aides; a disparity that is emblematic of the virus’s harsher toll on communities of color.

Had schools closed earlier, teachers say, those deaths might have been avoided.

Remembering a disastrous spring, many teachers fear returning in the fall. Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised that schools will reopen using “blended learning,” meaning that only a fraction of students will be in the building at any one time, so as to comply with social distancing mandates. Yet key details of the plan remain fuzzy. And even more troubling, some of the plan’s more specific promises, like nightly deep cleaning for schools, are far-fetched, according to school administrators and staff who spoke with The Indypendent.

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The fall is approaching, and resistance to reopening is growing among teachers.  “If anyone asked us right now, could we open schools tomorrow safely, the answer is no. We can’t right now,” UFT president Michael Mulgrew told WNYC on July 18. “There are so many questions that haven’t been answered.”  Schools that the UFT deemed unsafe, he promised, would not reopen in the fall.

Teachers that spoke with The Indypendent described similar resistance within their own communities. Plans for sick-outs, which teachers threatened in the spring, are taking shape. Rallies and marches are being organized.

The city’s most under-resourced schools, teachers say, will bear a disproportionate burden if reopening plans go awry. Jacobs has seen the funding gaps in New York’s schools, ever-widening as wealthy PTAs flood money into already-wealthy school systems and the city slashes its education budget. “You ask me what the differences in our schools are?” he says.

“It’s funding. It’s services. It’s everything.”


Though COVID-19 case numbers have stabilized in recent weeks, New York City faces steep challenges in safely reopening its schools in September. It is contending not only with $1 billion in cuts to the Department of Education over the last two years but also long-standing infrastructural issues: Many schools are overcrowded, have for years suffered chronic shortages of soap and other cleaning supplies, and are badly understaffed.

These problems are more prevalent for the city’s most vulnerable students. Overcrowding, for example, disproportionately affects immigrant students due to the underfunding of new school construction in their communities. All are compounding factors for a contagious respiratory virus.

Jake Jacobs takes a break on the playground at the Bronx Park Middle School where he teaches. He’s wary of returning to the classroom but doesn’t want to abandon his co-workers. Photo: Sue Brisk.

The city is also strapped for cash. While schools around the country are getting federal aid from the CARES Act, New York City’s schools have seen none of that money. In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent $716 million in stimulus money for schools to the city — and then immediately cut $716 million in state funds from the city’s education budget. Schools, in effect, received none of their designated aid, which could have helped the Department of Education withstand the additional $400 million in cuts that came with de Blasio’s July budget.

Since May, de Blasio has floated plans for a fall reopening. And, as spring turned to summer, pressure to bring students back to classrooms increased. President Trump has campaigned relentlessly for schools to reopen, even as school districts in new virus hotspots announce that they will stay virtual. Some educators, too, have warned that continuing with full remote learning will exacerbate educational disparities and hurt working parents.

On July 8, the city released its “return to school” plan, which outlined the precautions schools will take in order to reopen. The crux of the plan is its “cohort” model, in which a school body is divided into two or more rotating groups, who each go to school for part of the week, and have remote instruction the rest of the time.

Yet educators say the plan leaves questions unanswered. For weeks the DOE has failed to provide guidance on critical aspects of the plan, even as New York state has released more detailed requirements for school reopening. There is no plan yet for busing, for instance. Nor is it even clear whether Gov. Cuomo will allow the city to go through with its reopening. He says he will make the final call the first week of August.

“You have the sense that no one is really in control,” says Amanda Vender, an English-as-a-new-language (ENL) teacher in Elmhurst, Queens. “No one is exerting leadership that would give us confidence.”

A particular concern for many parents and teachers is the question of cleaning. The DOE promises to ship additional supplies to schools — disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, for example — and promises additional deep cleaning, day and night, with new electrostatic sprayers.

Teachers say they have doubts about these goals. So do custodians.

Robert J. Troeller, president of Local 891, the union that represents the city’s custodian engineers, says custodial teams do not have adequate staffing or supplies for the increases in cleaning that the DOE is promising. Given the city-wide hiring freeze, it’s likely to stay that way.

“We want it to happen,” he tells The Indy. “But we need the resources. The budgets that they gave us are inadequate to provide the level of service that they’re promising.”

Troeller estimates that the DOE is asking for a 25 percent increase in labor, without hiring any new staff. And, because of the hiring freeze, there will be no way to replace staff who retire or fall ill — stretching custodial workers even thinner across the city as they risk their lives to keep schools safe.

A DOE spokesperson told The Indy that the city would release more specific cleaning protocols in the coming weeks, and that custodians would be “well-equipped with guidance and supplies” when buildings reopened.

While the city says it is providing additional cleaning equipment to help with the custodian shortage, Troeller says that still isn’t enough. The nightly cleaning of all surfaces that the DOE promises is “not something we ever did before,” he says. Without more staff, “I don’t see how that’s going to happen.”

“If you want to bring people back, and you create a plan to keep them as safe as possible, but you don’t provide us with the necessary funds to implement that plan, then it’s just words on paper,” Troeller says.

Even before the coronavirus, many New York City schools had struggled to keep up basic hygiene standards. Mindy Rosier-Rayburn, a special ed science teacher, says her school building in Harlem, which houses four separate schools, had routinely been left without paper towels, soap and toilet paper.

“We had teachers that would bring in their own soap,” she says. “And we’re trusting [the DOE] to keep everything clean?”

Troeller says custodial teams have begun receiving additional supplies from the DOE, as promised. But some school administrators have doubts about whether the city can provide the masks and hand sanitizer that it says will be delivered to schools on an “as needed basis” after an initial shipment.

Two school administrators described to The Indy significant delays in the deliveries of such supplies to public schools in late May, which they were instructed to disperse to communities. In one case, the supplies did not arrive for over a week, with no explanation or notice, the administrator said.

Even if schools are clean, reopening still involves serious risks of exposure. Aixa Rodriguez, a high school ENL teacher and the founder of the advocacy group Bronx Educators United for Justice, says parents are more preoccupied with transport.

“It’s not so much the inside the classroom that parents have been asking me about,” she says. “It’s the transportation. They’re afraid. Maybe the classroom will have sprays and hand sanitizer, but it’s an hour commute for some of our kids.”

Rodriguez was adamant, though, that her school would be unsafe for students and teachers. “Let’s get it straight: I want to see my kids,” she says. But, she insists, she’s scared that her building is simply inadequate; all its classrooms are internal. “We cannot open windows. We cannot get fresh air,” she said.

The DOE says it is in the process of making repairs to the city’s many aging ventilation systems, but it’s unclear if the buildings will have proper air circulation by September.

Also concerning, administrators and educators said, is the continued absence of any guidance from the DOE for handling coronavirus outbreaks. In the early days of the pandemic, the DOE required any child who developed symptoms at school to quarantine from the general student body until they could be picked up. At some understaffed schools, one school administrator told The Indy, principals or assistant principals were forced to isolate themselves with sick children, in absence of other protocol.

The DOE says all schools will have a designated “isolation room” for children who fall ill during the school day. Yet it has no plans yet for contact tracing or other safety measures in the event of a coronavirus case in school communities. A spokesperson told The Indy those plans will be released closer to September.

Many schools already struggle to provide adequate medical attention to students. The New York City school system has a severe shortage of nurses. Hundreds of schools have no school nurse at all or rely on temporary contract nurses who don’t have access to students’ health records.

“What happens when a child or a teacher or a staff member becomes ill? How are they isolated? And who are they isolated with? These are basic questions,” Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, an East Harlem parent and member of the District 4 Community Education Council, which advises the DOE, tells The Indy.

Aixa Rodriguez, a high school ENL teacher in the Bronx, says the most frequent worry she hears about is how students will stay Covid free while riding the subway to and from school. Photo: Sue Brisk.

She says the DOE has yet to provide satisfying answers.

This is all further complicated by overcrowding, which is endemic to New York City’s schools. Many buildings, like Rosier-Rayburn’s, contain multiple schools and share bathrooms between them. More than half of New York City’s 1,800 public schools are considered crowded by the DOE. Last fall, over 300,000 students were in classes with more than 30 students. Some particularly overcrowded buildings require students to take classes in trailers parked outside.

Leonie Haimson, the founder and executive director of the non-profit organization Class Size Matters, has been fighting against school overcrowding in New York for years. The pandemic, she says, is putting a new spotlight on old problems: “If the city had put any effort and money into lowering class size and building more schools over the last decade or so, we’d be in a better position right now than we are.”

The DOE has been devising elaborate schedules that allow students in overcrowded schools to return to classrooms. In June, the city sent out a survey to principals, asking them to estimate their schools’ capacity for students, given loose social-distancing parameters. “Since when are teachers and principals architects and physicians?” says Salas-Ramirez.

As it stands, the more overcrowded a school, the fewer days a week students can be in class. De Blasio has said that most students will go to school two or three days a week, and learn virtually otherwise. This, though, only includes schools that can accommodate half of their students at one time. Students at schools with a lower capacity will only attend school as infrequently as once a week. Several school administrators that spoke with The Indy warned that many schools would struggle even to follow that more limited schedule.

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“There are many teachers that feel that it’s not even worth the risk because they’re not going to be able to see their students enough over the course of the week,” Haimson says.

Particularly in high schools, students’ schedules are already complex. They need particular classes and credits to graduate, and to receive instruction from teachers with particular licenses. Some students will opt for all-remote learning, which the DOE is offering as an option. School administrators are scrambling to come up with schedules that account for it all, with little guidance from overhead.

Teachers, meanwhile, are deciding whether to return to the classroom at all. Jake Jacobs says he and many of his fellow teachers in the Bronx are weighing whether to apply for a medical exemption, which would allow them to teach remotely in the fall, if approved.

“Nobody knows what to do. We have our backs against the wall right now,” Jacobs says. Teachers living with vulnerable family members, for instance, are ineligible for an exemption if they are themselves healthy. They say they are being forced to put their loved ones at risk.

Jacobs himself worries that if he got the exemption, it would be as if he were abandoning his students and colleagues.

“I’m feeling like I’d be letting my staff down,” he explains. “Because if my staff’s going in, and they’re risking their health, and I’m staying at home nice and safe — they’re going to look at me like I’m a coward.”

Amanda Vender says teachers at her Elmhurst school are keeping close tabs on the DOE’s plans. They will consider organized action in the fall, she says, if they feel that reopening will be unsafe.

“There will be a lot of resistance if teachers feel concerned for their safety and the safety of their students,” she tells The Indy.

That resistance has already begun. Vender is a member of the Movement of Radical Educators (MORE), the social justice, left-wing caucus within the United Federation of Teachers, which represents the city’s public school educators. The caucus has grown increasingly vocal about the dangers of reopening schools in recent weeks, and plans to hold a march next week to the Department of Education headquarters to demand schools do not reopen.

A new hashtag has been circling online: #WeWontDieforDOE.

Switching to a remote fall “has always been a possibility,” says Rosier-Rayburn, who sits on the UFT’s roughly 90-member executive board. Though she did not give specifics on UFT’s negotiations with the DOE, she says remote learning is “absolutely being discussed. It is absolutely on the table.”

But it is hardly an ideal solution. Pediatricians and psychologists warn that children’s learning and mental health are put at risk when instruction is fully virtual and parents will be left without consistent childcare, hot meals and the many other critical resources schools provide.

De Blasio has touted his plan for free childcare for 50,000 students per day in the fall, but that accounts for less than 10 percent of the city’s 560,000 elementary school students, many of whom will be out of school for most of the week. Working families say they are left with no good options.

“It’s really difficult for parents to answer how they feel about September,” says Joey, a mother whose two children go to school in the Bronx and who asked that The Indy only use her first name for this story. “It’s very hard. We need to make a living. I want my kids to go to school, but I’m afraid.”

Joey says her concerns and those of fellow parents are not being heard by the DOE. Many are like her, Chinese immigrants, and the language barrier, she says, is not addressed by their school or city government.

“They send people into these meetings and they don’t offer to translate. Then they say there were no questions, no anything,” she says. “Nobody knows our concerns.”

Rodriguez, who leads Bronx Educators United for Justice, says teachers feel similarly. “I don’t think we have been given a platform as teachers to say what we need,” she says. “They are not listening to us.”

Among parents, among teachers, among school staff, there has arisen a gradual sense that the city is steamrolling ahead toward the fall, leaving all else behind. As September approaches, families and educators say, they will need to take matters into their own hands.

“This is our life,” says Rosier-Rayburn. “This is much bigger than things we’ve fought for in the past.”

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