From school to school and district to district, differing infection rates and resource levels will make for disparate experiences this fall.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza discuss the deal to delay reopening schools.

For weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio had resisted calls from educators and advocates to delay the start of in-person classes, insisting that New York City schools were safe and ready to reopen on September 10 for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic struck in March. But on Tuesday—after the city’s teachers union readied to vote on a potential strike—he struck a different tone, announcing that the start of the school year would be pushed back 10 days to allow educators and officials more time to prepare. 

Under the new agreement reached with education labor unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, the official first day of school will start September 21, in which the city will launch its  “blended learning” plan, which gives families the option to continue remote-only schooling or to take part in a hybrid schedule, where students will report to classrooms on certain days of the week and learn from home on others. During the week prior, from September 16-18, all students will take part in a three-day “transitional period” in which they’ll be prepped for the start of classes through remote-only instruction. The city will also ramp up its testing efforts at schools as part of the announcement, according to the mayor.

“We have a huge obligation to get the health and safety part right,” de Blasio said Tuesday, saying the extra time will allow the Department of Education “to make sure that we can have the smoothest beginning of the school year, even under extraordinarily challenging conditions.”

The mayor has repeatedly stressed the importance of reconvening in-person learning, saying it’s what parents overwhelmingly want and that remote schooling is insufficient to meet the educational needs of many students. The DOE has pledged to institute strict social distancing and mask-wearing measures at schools, provide all buildings with adequate protective gear and at least one school nurse, inspect all classrooms for proper ventilation and disinfect facilities each day.

Still, many have repeatedly raised alarms about the risks of reopening, as schools in other states which opened last month were forced to shutter again after infections were detected. Tuesday’s announcement to push back the start of classes has done little to allay those fears, educators said, and still fails to answer critical questions about how the city will address issues of inequity exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly in communities that have been the hardest hit by COVID-19.

Anxiety about averages

Under the DOE’s reopening rules, all school buildings will close if the city’s seven-day average COVID-19 positivity rate hits or surpasses 3 percent—what officials say is “the most aggressive threshold in the nation” and below Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide marker of 5 percent.

However, while the citywide percentage of positive COVID-19 tests on Tuesday was at 1.33 percent, certain neighborhoods have seen or are still seeing higher numbers: In Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst and Mapleton, for instance, the average positivity rate for the four-week period ending August 22 is 3.03 percent, above the school reopening threshold. In Sunset Park, the percentage of positive cases for the same period was at 2.57 percent, but the neighborhood had experienced a higher spike as recently as early August, when the positivity rate soared to more than 6 percent.

Those disparities have led to calls for the city to adjust its school reopening standards, with some saying it should look at neighborhood-specific infection rates as opposed to a citywide average, acknowledging that the risk of returning to in-person classes may be higher in some communities than others. At Sunset Park’s P.S. 169, which serves nearly 1,200 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, a group of staffers who make up the elementary school’s Equity Team have asked the city to reopen schools only when the test positivity rate falls below 3 percent in every neighborhood across the five boroughs.

“Any other course of action would jeopardize the health and safety of already disenfranchised communities,” the group wrote in a letter to the mayor, governor and DOE Commissioner Richard Carranza on August 19. On Tuesday, the school’s Equity Team said that while they appreciate the extra time to prepare for reopening, it does not address the concerns about reopening in communities where infection rates remain higher.

“We’re still requesting that the city close down all schools if any school zip code area has a positivity rate over 3 percent,” the group said in a statement. “We are still requesting a comprehensive testing plan addressing the needs of different communities.”

Last week, advocacy groups like PRESSNYC and the Alliance for Quality Education, along with a number of elected officials, sent a letter to the city and state echoing calls for changing the reopening infection rate, specifically calling for it to be based on each Community District average rather than citywide, and to halt reopening if any district is above 3 percent.

“Any threshold for the reopening of school buildings that depends on a city-wide average will lead to disproportionate harm to marginalized communities by default,” the letter states.

But the city said in a statement Monday that it will maintain the citywide average as its marker for reopening, and will address higher rates in specific neighborhoods through efforts like ramped up testing campaigns, as it did in Sunset Park earlier this month.

“The threshold established is citywide and we will be aggressively monitoring rates locally and across the five boroughs,” Department of Health Spokesman Patrick Gallahue told City Limits. “Where neighborhood fluctuations occur, the city is launching interventions—with equity at the forefront—to ensure that people get the services they need, be it housing or medical assistance. The city will also be tracing contacts to ensure that anyone exposed gets the guidance and the services needed.”

Reopening fears and adding to trauma

The mayor insists that school buildings are on their way to reopening successfully, saying on Monday that 247 schools have had their plans for outdoor learning approved and that 324,000 iPads have been doled out to students.

But many educators, school leaders and advocates have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the city’s preparations: Images circulating online last week of the city’s inspection teams using toilet paper on a stick to check a classroom’s ventilation drew ridicule, while new DOE guidance that schools should assign separate teachers to handle remote and in-person learning has sparked worries over whether there will be adequate staffing.

“To me, it’s just like they’re grasping at straws,” says Priscilla Santos, vice president of the Community Education Council for Brooklyn’s District 21, which includes parts of Mapleton and Bensonhurst—currently seeing the highest positivity rates in the city—as well as Coney Island and Brighton Beach, among neighborhoods with some of the highest COVID-19 death rates since the pandemic began, city data shows.

“We had so many deaths here in the community,” says Santos. “My kids lost their football coach. We lost neighbors. We lost people from the church.” She, too, worries that the reliance on a citywide average infection rate is not stringent enough. “Any percentage that’s above 1 percent to me is dangerous,” she says.

In Sunset Park, teachers say they’re worried not just about their own safety but for that of their students and families, many of whom live in multigenerational households, often in crowded conditions ripe for spreading infection. A 2017 survey by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development found that 9.6 percent of households in the neighborhood suffered from severe overcrowding, among the highest rates in the city.

Miranda Lee, a teacher at P.S. 169 and a member of the school’s Equity Team, says many of her young students live with grandparents who play a large role in children’s caretaking, and whose age puts them at greater risk for COVID-19 complications.

“This idea of exposing to a larger community is very scary,” she says, saying that while she and her colleagues are eager to see the school back open, the city’s current plan just isn’t enough.

“We know the role of public schools to the whole working function of a city. But this is not safe,” Lee says. “We will just end up having to close school again or contribute to more inequity.”

The prospect of opening up and then having to shutter again if a student or staff member contracts COVID-19 would add to the trauma that city children have already been through, says Raysa Villalona, another P.S. 169 teacher.

“That will create a ton of disruption, not to mention fear,” she says. “Fear spreads like wildfire, especially in a school building.”

That trauma isn’t limited just to students: Between schools closing on March 16 and the end of the year in June, the DOE saw 79 employees, including 31 teachers, die from coronavirus.

“That wears on you psychologically, too,” says one teacher at a Sunset Park school, who was critical of the city’s reopening plans and asked that her name not be published. “Having to be there and be present for children, to teach them, to educate them and support them—it’s really hard.”

Testing, tracing and trust

Under the city’s reopening plan, entire school buildings won’t necessarily close if a COVID-19 case is reported. If infections are limited to one or two people in the same classroom, for instance, it might prompt a 14-day closure of that classroom as opposed to a building-wide shutdown.

“If a kid tests positive, that specific classroom is handled, not the whole school. If you have multiple instances in a school, that’s a different matter,” de Blasio explained of the policy during a press briefing last week.

Following months of complaints about slow turnaround times at some city COVID-19 testing sites, the city announced Tuesday that it will provide additional testing resources at schools, including expedited tests for students and DOE workers at 34 locations across the city, where results will be available within 24-48 hours. Testing will also be made available at school buildings through mobile vans and tents, according to the mayor.

Starting October 1, he added, the city will also launch a “medical monitoring” program that requires schools to randomly test 10 to 20 percent of its on-site student and staff population each month, with families asked to sign a consent form at the start of the year.

The reopening plan relies heavily on the city’s test-and-tracing protocols: Students and staff who show symptoms at school will be isolated and asked to go home, and if a COVID-19 case is confirmed, the Health Department and Test + Trace Corps will investigate to find out who else in the building may have been exposed. The results of that investigation will determine whether a school building or just a classroom will close, and who has to quarantine.

City Councilmember Mark Treyger, a former teacher who now chairs the Council’s education committee, has said he’s skeptical of how effective the city’s contact tracing program will be in a school setting, particularly in largely immigrant communities where undocumented students and their families may be fearful of speaking frankly to contact tracers.

“I have received no briefing or no information about what a contract tracing program looks like in a school situation,” says Treyger. “I can just imagine an immigrant student having to be interviewed or confronted by a stranger that they’re not familiar with in their school community.”

Lack of trust and low participation has proven to be a hurdle in the city’s contact tracing efforts outside of school buildings, and it’s been evident in other ways, too. Earlier this summer, the DOE asked families to complete a survey about their feelings around schools reopening this fall, the results of which de Blasio has repeatedly touted as proof that a majority of parents want kids back in classrooms. But less than 30 percent of DOE families actually responded to the survey, the results show.

Some propose alternatives

Despite fears about the return of in-person learning, many advocates and educators agree with the mayor about the inadequacies and limitations of remote-only learning, which research indicates has widened the educational achievement gap and failed to help students advance academically. School closures have also put parents and other caretakers in a difficult position, scrambling to find childcare in order to return to work, or to work from home while simultaneously trying to oversee their child’s online schooling.

“Our communities have seen how badly remote instruction has been,” says Natasha Capers, director of the Coalition for Educational Justice. “Families have been presented with no-win solutions and no resources.”

She says online learning has been particularly difficult for District 75 students, English Language Learners (ELLs), those with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and low-literacy, and that the city has so far failed to provide detailed plans for how it will address the needs of those and other students this year.

Many parents, she adds, are still fearful of sending their children back to school in person, but have few other options, especially since lawmakers have failed to provide more aggressive pandemic relief efforts, like cancelling rent.

“What else do we expect families to be able to do?” she asks. “Once again, we’re moving at the pace of capitalism and not at the pace of saving human life. That’s the real reason we’re reopening schools—so people can go back to work.”

Advocates who are critical of the city’s current reopening plans have been pushing for alternatives, arguing the DOE should delay in-person classes and focus first on improving the quality of its online instruction, including better language access. When students do return to physical classrooms, it should be phased in gradually and first prioritize the children who need it most, these groups argue. 

“Use the time we gain by delaying reopening school buildings to develop a safe, equitable and phased reopening plan in a truly collaborative and inclusive process that includes the voices of those most directly impacted by COVID-19, and that prioritizes English language learners, students in temporary housing, and students with disabilities, while keeping to the long-term goals of increasing racial and socio-economic diversity across and within NYC schools,” reads the letter educational advocates and elected officials sent to city leaders last week. The letter also calls for the city to expand access to its regional enrichment centers (RECs), which offer childcare and other services to frontline workers who need them.

Treyger has introduced his own plan, which makes similar recommendations. In addition to prioritizing in-person learning for the subsets of students listed above, he’s pushing for the city to first offer physical classroom space to early childhood and elementary school students, saying they rely more heavily on live instruction and are more likely to attend schools closer to home, minimizing the use of mass transit and making it easier for contact tracing should someone get sick.

“If you prioritize in-person for elementary [school], it kind of gives you a better sense of which neighborhoods are experiencing more symptoms than not, whereas high school, it’s all over the place—it’s very hard to track that,” he says.

Some teachers are supportive of a phased-in, prioritized approach to reopening, including the anonymous Sunset Park educator who spoke to City Limits and described the city’s current approach as “everyone is going to get a little bit, but nobody is going to get what they need.”

“There’s a difference between saying, ‘Everybody gets the same thing,’ which is what we’re doing right now, and ‘Everybody gets what they need,’” she says.

Underlying inequities persist

Even the most detailed plan, however, won’t make up for the inequalities that have existed throughout the city’s education system long before the pandemic began, stemming from decades of underinvestment, which have been laid even more bare by the crisis, advocates say.

“The ventilation systems have always been trash. The fact that we wanted until a pandemic to figure out that children need clean air—go figure,” says Capers. “We should have never been educating children in windowless rooms. We have always needed the technology; WiFi should always have been a public utility.”

Schools in wealthier neighborhoods will inevitably have more resources for reopening, just as they did for other initiatives before COVID-19: The DOE’s outdoor learning plan, for instance, allows schools to convert outdoor spaces into social-distancing friendly classrooms. But such spaces are often a luxury for city schools.

“Many schools do not have football fields. Many schools don’t have a courtyard either,” says Treyger. He pointed to a statement from Carranza earlier this month, in which the chancellor suggested well-heeled PTAs could donate funds to less wealthy schools to pay for the supplies needed to set up outdoor classrooms.

“That’s the 20th Century equivalent of Marie Antionette saying, ‘Let them eat cake,’” he says. “There are certain schools that have to start GoFundMe pages just to buy school supplies.”

The DOE was already hit with millions of dollars in budget cuts this year to offset the financial impact of the pandemic. Many, including the mayor, have been calling for the state legislature to allow the city to borrow billions of dollars from Albany to help plug its budget gap, as well as pass a tax on millionaires as a revenue source.

Asking schools to reopen classrooms safely is a tall order without adequate funding, advocates say, and even delaying the start of in-person classes still wouldn’t address those larger equity issues.

“I don’t want to pretend like if we just give it six more weeks we’re going to find a perfect solution,” says Capers. “We’ve seen no evidence that the city, even if they delay reopening, would do anything to actually improve anything.”