Politico

New York pushes forward with in-person education as others reconsider


New York is pressing ahead with allowing K-12 schools to resume in-person instruction next month, setting it apart from other cities and states that have in recent weeks scrapped or delayed their plans to do so and instead start the school year online.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday granted preliminary authorization for schools across the state to begin implementing their reopening plans, a much anticipated decision that he said reflects the state’s progress since becoming it ground zero for the country’s outbreak this spring.

“You look at our infection rate, [and] we are probably in the best situation in the country right now, as incredible as that is,” Cuomo told reporters Friday on a conference call. “If anyone can open schools, we can open schools.”

There is still much that needs to be worked out before New York students can return to classrooms, and a backslide in transmission rates — or a revolt from parents or the state’s powerful teacher’s unions — could upend these efforts. State health officials are still working through the plans submitted by the state’s more than 700 public school districts and turning up the pressure on the 127 that have yet to do so and the 50 or so whose blueprints were deemed insufficient.

That includes New York City, far and away the largest public school system in the country, with its roughly 1.1 million students and more than 200,000 school workers. The de Blasio administration received an extension from the state Education Department while it continues to work on plans for its 1,800 schools, but the 32-page health and safety plan it submitted to the state Department of Health was derided by a top Cuomo adviser on a call with reporters last weekend as merely “an outline” of what’s necessary. (The Education Department is independent from the rest of the executive branch, a peculiarity of the state constitution that Cuomo has increasingly noted when the two agencies diverge.)

New York is standing increasingly apart from other parts of the country in its approach to schooling this fall. Unlike some more conservative states, New York is not compelling schools to open their doors and bring students back to in-class instruction, instead leaving it to local officials whether to educate in-person, remotely or a mix of the two. And other large school districts are turning back to remote instruction after determining that reopening schools presents too large a risk to ongoing efforts to contain the coronavirus.

Chicago this week became the latest city school district to push back when most students will be allowed to return to school buildings and receive lessons in a classroom, joining Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and many other districts in carrying out education remotely for the time being and hoping it’s more successful than the rocky first go that finished out this past school year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has said New York City public schools won’t reopen unless the daily infection rate is below 3 percent on a seven-day rolling basis. Schools will close and transition to remote learning if the rate goes above 3 percent. The city’s infection rate has been below 3 percent since June. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has also said that students who do not wear masks will be sent home and won’t be allowed to participate in in-person learning and that there will be a coronavirus tracing team just for schools.

Cuomo reserved the right to change course to prevent a resurgence of Covid-19 in a state still badly scarred by its first bout with the deadly virus. Prior to his announcement Friday, the governor’s staff was busy tamping down rumors that were picking up steam that he was going to delay the start of in-person education.

“We’re going to watch the infection rate between now, and the day that schools open,” Cuomo said on Friday.

The state’s test positivity rate has hovered around 1 percent in recent weeks, and Cuomo has said he will order schools to shut back down if that percentage in a given region exceeds 9 percent over a seven-day average.

Along with the child care implications of having students out of school buildings and the burden it poses on working parents, students’ access to technology — and the quality of the education they receive outside a traditional classroom setting — has been near the top of the governor’s stated concerns in trying to keep schools open and was a major factor in March why Cuomo, de Blasio and others initially resisted shutting down schools for as long as they did.

“School districts made an amazing effort when they closed immediately, but now they’ve had months to plan I think expectations are raised,” said Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State PTA.

Interim State Education Commissioner Shannon Tahoe and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa in a joint statement called on lawmakers to devise a statewide plan to help schools pay for personal protective equipment and technology they need to teach amid a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Cuomo’s decision Friday was expected, and now the political center of gravity shifts back to the local level after the governor exerted an extraordinary amount of authority over school decisions during much of the crisis. It also distances the governor from a litany of thorny issues that could undermine schools’ current plans, alienate allies and chip away at his cresting approval rating.

For one, teachers unions have been fierce critics of the plans formulated by a number of districts, as well as parts of the state guidance, most notably regarding testing and school closures. United Federation of Teachers head Michael Mulgrew, whose union represents New York City teachers, said in a terse statement Friday it’s an “open question” whether parents and teachers will feel safe to return to schools under the city’s plan. And the statewide organization, New York State United Teachers, has been examining its legal options if it needs to challenge the working conditions that schools are setting up.

“We’re almost done with the summer and we’re looking at September and there’s still a lot of changes that need to be made,” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said in an interview. “I am personally unhappy with the response from many districts around the state.”

Teachers and other public employees are prohibited from striking under New York’s Taylor Law or face a penalty of two days’ pay for every one on strike, but there are other non-strike tactics that can be used to apply pressure on schools. The Movement of Rank and File Educators, a social justice caucus within UFT, has threatened a sickout and is looking into ways to circumvent a law that prohibits striking. Another faction within the UFT, the Solidarity Caucus, called for Carranza to resign and for the creation of a “non-partisan, multi-level task force” to develop a new plan.

Cuomo on Friday directed districts to hold a series of forums this month with parents and an additional one devoted to teachers to answer questions about their respective plans for the school year and diffuse potential tensions.

“I don’t think you want to get into a legal battle with the teachers,” he said. Teachers have to feel safe. You’re not going to order a teacher into the classroom.”

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