(Bloomberg) — Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision Thursday to further delay in-person learning raised questions about whether New York will join other large school districts in reverting to all-remote learning, for at least the start of the year.
Four days before New York City schools were to reopen for in-person instruction, the mayor delayed classes for elementary schoolers until Sept. 29 and for middle- and high-school students until Oct. 1. Learning will begin remotely Sept. 21 for all but pre-kindergarten pupils and those with severe developmental disabilities.
“We’re giving schools more staff, more time and more support,” Education Chancellor Richard Carranza said at a press briefing Thursday.
New York, which has the largest school system in the U.S., is one of the few cities to plan in-person learning this month. The postponement was met with dismay by parents who have been cooped up in apartments for months and are now forced again to make school happen from home.
Staff at Mark Twain IS239, a middle school in Coney Island, on Thursday afternoon sent an email begging for patience because the volume of calls and emails from parents worried about technical issues — and health and safety — had “increased exponentially.”
Some New York parents said they weren’t surprised, but expressed frustration at the system’s lack of preparation for online education.
“They haven’t paid any attention to remote learning,” said Christopher Diamond, a Brooklyn father of seventh- and fifth-graders. “They’ve wasted this massive opportunity to really close the education gap using the disruptive technologies we have.”
Advocates for students with disabilities raised similar concerns. “Remote learning was disastrous for many students this spring,” Randi Levine, policy director of Advocates for Children of New York, said in an emailed statement. The city must “start paying more attention to how to provide students with effective instruction and help them catch up whether they are learning in person or remotely.”
City Council member Justin Brannan said on Twitter, presumably in jest: “I will be leading a tribal scream & drum circle for all NYC parents and teachers in the woods this weekend. PM me for detail.”
The delay to in-person learning comes on the heels of the Department of Education backtracking this week on promises of daily live instruction for the city’s more than 1 million students.
The city had faced pressure from teachers’ unions to delay reopening until all schools met safety standards, including additional protective equipment and Covid-19 testing for staff and students. A Sept. 21 reopening had been part of an earlier agreement that pushed the date from Sept. 10.
Tiffany Patterson, a high-school teacher, said schools weren’t prepared to open Monday. “This blended learning model does create a larger demand for teachers,” she said, “and there’s no way we could have effectively and efficiently served the kids under current circumstances.”
De Blasio said the system is tapping the substitute-teacher pool, current staff and the City University of New York system. On Monday, he had announced an additional 2,000 teachers and said there would eventually be a total of 4,500.
“Staffing allows for everything else to work,” the mayor said Thursday.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, said ventilation had been a problem but that “the city is really on top” of the situation. Mulgrew said he was pleased with a command center set up to coordinate the city’s response, and advances on virus testing. He said more needs to be done on contact tracing.
The system has a “pretty decent stockpile” of personal protective equipment, Mulgrew said, adding that apportioning it “is something that should be figured out.”
“This is an unprecedented challenge,” he said. “If we’re going to do this, we must make sure we get this right.”
Other major systems have concluded that getting it right is too daunting a task at this point.
Chicago Public Schools began this month with full remote learning, and plan to assess in-person learning in a hybrid model starting only in November. Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified aren’t resuming in-person classes.
Other districts are pressing ahead, attempting to reopen because millions of children rely on schools for food, counseling and basic health care. The setback in New York shows how hard it will be.
Reopening is expensive, with public schools stockpiling masks, hand sanitizer and plexiglass shields to protect children in the classrooms.
The American Federation of Teachers estimates that safely opening in the pandemic could cost districts an extra $116.5 billion. The Association of School Business Officials International and the School Superintendents Association estimate it will cost the average U.S. district $1.77 million in new disinfecting expenses, cleaning equipment and additional staff to be able to reopen in person.
Chicago, the nation’s third-biggest district, has proposed a 7% larger budget for this fiscal year for Covid expenses such as devices and Internet service for thousands of students — and cleaning supplies.
“Opening city schools is going to take all our political and scientific and policy-making will,” said Shailesh Date, an epidemiologist and founder of LRC Systems, a San Francisco company that works to improve public health with data. “New York is different from many other places in the country. It’s a high-density city. Just the number of people is going to be an issue. You are always going to have a problem with infectious diseases.”
Meeting public-health guidelines in New York may be complicated by the layout of older buildings that make it difficult to maintain social distance especially in the hallways, said Karl Minges, a professor of health policy at the University of New Haven.
“It’s better to be outside,” Minges said, though delaying the reopening into autumn may make that difficult.
But de Blasio said the city would push through all obstacles. “Nothing replaces the in-person experience,” he said.
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