United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew tells the Max & Murphy Show that parents need to be convinced that schools are safe, even as youth cases climb.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

Mayor de Blasio and UFT head Mulgrew announcing a preliminary contract agreement in 2018.

The parents of hundreds of thousands of children who are still attending New York City public schools only from their laptops face a big decision this summer—one that will shape not just their own children’s experience but how the nation’s largest school system functions: whether or not to agree to return to in-person learning.

“We cannot continue as a school system with 65 percent of the kids still not coming,” Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, told WBAI’s Max & Murphy Show on Wednesday. His message to parents: “We want your kids back. We’re going to keep them safe.”

Mulgrew estimates that if 3-foot social distancing is adopted, 90 percent of children will be able to come to school full-time in the fall. But other factors will also weigh on parents’ minds. It is unlikely a vaccine will be approved for use in younger children by the fall. And the rate of COVID infections among children is increasing. “It’s really about, how do we help parents to understand that this summer is when they need to make a decision and we want their kids back in school,” Mulgrew says.

The case to parents should be bolstered by the recent change to the city’s procedures for school closures that ended the practice of closing entire school buildings if two unrelated cases emerged. That rule had led to widespread, temporary school closures, and many parents are believed to have opted to keep their kids home to avoid those disruptions.

“We worked really hard to make sure that our schools have maintained a high level of safety throughout the changes that we’ve had with COVID. As we’ve learned more about COVID, we’ve made changes but we made them not for political reasons but for medical reasons – being guided by doctors, by independent doctors,” Mulgrew said. 

That’s why the two-case rule changed. “Now we have enough testing in place that we know what’s going inside the school,” Mulgrew said. “So let’s switch to linked cases inside the building. And once City Hall agreed with us and their doctors agreed with our doctors it was pretty simple to get to an agreement. It was just a little frustrating it took that long to switch the whole dynamic.”

Also joining Max & Murphy were two advocates from Teens Take Charge, which is pushing for an end to admissions screens at city high schools and other reforms to the school system. One of the organizers interviewed, a Brooklyn student named Maryam Diallo, said teens are sizing up the candidates for mayor, even if they won’t be able to vote in the race. After a recent Teens Take Charge mayoral forum, she said, “I came out of that forum not liking a couple of people—like thinking that they would be absolutely terrible for the city. I came out absolutely loving some people. I came out just very much neutral about some others.”

Hear the conversations below.

UFT head Michael Mulgrew

Advocates Maryam Diallo and Isa Grumbach-Bloom from Teens Take Charge