Can N.Y.C. Reopen Schools? The Whole Country Is Watching

Can N.Y.C. Reopen Schools? The Whole Country Is Watching

With about a month to go before New York City schools are scheduled to reopen, the city is confronting a torrent of logistical issues and political problems that could upend Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambition to make New York one of the few major districts in the country to bring students back into classrooms this fall.

There are not yet enough nurses to staff all city school buildings, and ventilation systems in aging buildings are in urgent need of upgrades. There may not even be enough teachers available to offer in-person instruction.

Some teachers are threatening to stage a sickout, and their union has indicated it might sue over reopening. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has contradicted the mayor on every major issue related to schools during the pandemic, has spent the last several days loudly noting that Mr. de Blasio’s plan is not yet complete.

And the parents of the city’s 1.1 million public school students, exhausted after nearly four excruciating months of remote learning, are desperate for answers and still unsure if they will send their children back into classrooms.

Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., and scores of smaller suburban and rural districts have in recent weeks reversed course on reopening and opted to start the school year remote-only, meaning that tens of millions of American children will be learning at home for months to come. Chicago, the third-largest district, will begin the academic year remotely next month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday morning.

But buoyed by its low infection rate, New York City is still planning to reopen its buildings Sept. 10 on a hybrid model, in which children will report to school one to three days a week — with masks and social distancing required — and learn online the rest of the time.

Even if the city succeeds in opening schools, there is little certainty that it will be able to keep them open all semester. One Indiana school that opened last week reported a positive case on the very first day of classes. Health experts predict the same is almost certain to happen at some point in some of New York’s 1,800 schools next month. Just two cases in different classrooms of the same school could force its closing for two weeks.

The question of whether New York can pull off reopening has profound consequences for the city’s long path to recovery — and potentially for how the rest of the country approaches school reopening.

If New York reopens safely, it could provide a template for other districts where the virus is contained and strict safety measures are in place. If it fails, it could send a deeply discouraging message to school officials elsewhere.

“It’s now or never,” said Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University who has written extensively about reopening. While the city’s virus incidence rate is among the lowest in the country, it is widely predicted that those numbers will tick up later this fall, she noted. “Either you do it for September, or no one is opening until there’s a vaccine,” she added.

The question of reopening has presented the mayor and governor with one of the weightiest conundrums of their careers.

The city’s former position as a global epicenter of the virus has made many parents and teachers extremely wary of school reopening. That is particularly true of Black and Latino New Yorkers who saw their communities ravaged by the virus.

Mr. de Blasio has laid out a series of safety measures over the last few days in an attempt to assuage fears and boost the chances that reopening really happens — and to try to quiet mounting criticism from the teachers’ union and Mr. Cuomo.

The city is also home to vast numbers of vulnerable children who rely on school for food, therapy and sometimes even safety from dangerous home conditions. Remote learning has been a failure for many of the city’s children, but has been particularly disastrous for the 200,000 students with disabilities and 114,000 who are homeless.

Balancing the risks and rewards of reopening is hugely challenging on its own. But the mayor and governor’s mutual dislike — and Mr. Cuomo’s determination to undermine the mayor — have compounded the problem.

The two men have each trumpeted the city’s plummeting case numbers as a point of pride. But the searing criticism they have both faced for waiting too long to close schools in mid-March, when the virus was already spreading rapidly, has put them on high alert over reopening.

Mr. de Blasio said last week he believed New York was up for the challenge, calling reopening a “big, tough job, but one this city is ready for.”

He acknowledged that many parents and teachers are fearful about returning to classrooms, and said he would not reopen schools — or would close them — if the city’s test positivity rate ticks above 3 percent.

“This is a way of proving that we will do things the right way,” Mr. de Blasio said. Mr. Cuomo has set the threshold at 5 percent.

The city’s average test positivity rate is currently around 1 percent, though lags in test results have compromised some recent data. Average test positivity rates in some parts of Florida, where there has been enormous opposition to school reopening, reached as high as 20 percent last month.

Mr. Cuomo is expected to announce later this week that school districts across the state can tentatively plan to reopen because of the low virus caseload. But that does not necessarily mean that New York City schools will open — the State Education Department will still need to sign off, and the mayor himself has said he will not make a final call until later this summer.

Though the governor has frequently asserted that he has final say over whether schools open or close during the pandemic, he has recently sought to distance himself from that authority, saying he expected parents and teachers to make clear whether or not they want to return to school.

Though it is unlikely that Mr. Cuomo will veto the city’s reopening if the numbers stay low, the rancorous history between the two men on schools has prompted confusion among parents.

“I’m not looking forward to a fight between Cuomo and de Blasio,” said Peter Kruty, the father of two children in city public schools. “That’s not going to be constructive. I hope no one is going to pull rank at the last minute.”

Even if state education officials sign off on New York City’s final plan, which has not yet been submitted, Mr. de Blasio’s administration still faces glaring obstacles on the path to reopening.

Perhaps chief among them is growing dissent from the teachers’ union, which helped craft the city’s plan and is an active participant in high-level discussions about reopening, but has recently backed away from that plan as teachers’ fears have mounted.

President Trump’s push to reopen alarmed educators but gave unions in Democratic cities, including New York, a politically powerful cudgel with which to oppose opening school doors.

Though one national teachers’ union has authorized health and safety strikes, it is illegal for teachers to strike in New York City. But in a call with members last month, Michael Mulgrew, president of the local United Federation of Teachers, said, “I am preparing to do whatever we need to do if we think the schools are not safe and the city disagrees with us.”

On Monday, city teachers marched in Lower Manhattan to protest reopening plans, using the hashtag #WeWontDieforDOE, in reference to the Department of Education.

Even some educators who say they are willing to go back to classrooms said they were concerned that the highly charged climate in New York over reopening has damaged bonds between teachers and parents.

“We went from being honored as the most amazing people in the world to now we are lazy people who don’t want to work,” said Melissa Dorcemus, a high school special education teacher in Manhattan. “I’m like, which are we? It just flipped so fast on us.”

City Hall officials said they were planning to meet the union’s safety demands, though some crucial details are still scarce.

Still, Mr. Mulgrew recently said that even if all the safety boxes are checked, he may continue to oppose reopening, because of a lack of trust between the union and the mayor over the delayed closure in March.

Mr. Mulgrew and Mr. Cuomo, who are political allies, appear united in their goal of sowing distrust over the mayor’s reopening plan. The city has tried to pre-empt their protestations by rolling out more safety measures in recent days.

Mr. de Blasio said quick-turnaround tests will be made available for all staff before school starts, though he has not announced details about whether students and staff will be tested after the school year begins.

One or two cases in a single classroom will prompt the members of that class to learn remotely for two weeks. But if two or more people in different classrooms test positive, the entire building will close while disease detectives investigate links between the cases.

Many staffing questions remain. The teachers’ union has said it would not be comfortable returning to schools without a nurse in every building, a goal that has still not been reached, despite a recent flurry of hires.

The district also does not know if it will have enough teachers for students in classrooms. The city has estimated that about 20 percent of teachers will be allowed to work remotely because of medical accommodations. At the same time, it does not yet know how many students will show up to school: Families have until Friday to choose full-time remote instruction.

It is also unclear whether federal stimulus money will come through to help pay for safety measures. That is especially worrisome for the many city school buildings that are over a century old and have windows that barely open, raising questions about whether there will be enough air circulation to mitigate the risk of an airborne virus.

Joseph Allen, a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has advised districts with low levels of transmission to update ventilation systems and purchase portable air filters that can circulate air several times an hour.

“For anyone who says we can’t get this done in the next 30 days, that’s just wrong,” he said.

As the city rushes to retrofit buildings for a reopening that may or may not materialize, parents across the city said they felt deeply conflicted about whether to return.

Acola McKnight, a single mother who lives in Harlem, is worried that her son won’t receive crucial services for his attention deficit disorder if he is not in school.

But she also can’t picture dropping him off at the door and not being racked with fear about whether he will keep his mask on, or whether someone might test positive that day.

“There’s just so much uncertainty,” she said. “I have so many doubts.”

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