NEW YORK — New York City and its teachers union think the nation’s largest school district should be the gold standard for how to get kids back in class in the middle of a pandemic.
Other districts are turning to the city for answers, the mayor said, but have yet to open their doors.
“I’m on a thread with about 20 mayors — major cities around the country — we often are comparing notes on different issues,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an interview. “Most of them have been honest with me that they can’t figure out how to get out of remote, that they didn’t have the pieces ready and they don’t know how to put together in real time all the pieces they need.
“It’s not lack of will but they just find it a huge challenge.”
New York City began reopening for some students with the powerful local teachers union on board in September, then briefly shut down in late November. Some schools are already open again for in-person classes.
Officials are touting the city’s use of data, a “situation room” for agencies to coordinate and rapidly respond to school cases, and collaboration with the union on safeguards for teachers and students. The American Federation of Teachers is promoting the plan as part of a blueprint for safely reopening schools. De Blasio said his message to local leaders is, “just do it. We have proven you can keep school safe if you are willing to adopt enough rigorous measures.”
Around the country, however, some districts big and small show no signs of reopening or lack plans for how to get kids back into school buildings. Officials in other districts continue doing battle with unions over the science and politics of reopening or remain wedded to their own approaches.
“We cannot view our schools as a monolith like New York City, and I think that’s a blessing for us in New Jersey,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said during a Dec. 2 press briefing. He has taken heat from the New Jersey Education Association for having “downplayed the danger” of in-person instruction.
Though he has pushed for schools to remain open, Murphy also has said the more than 700 districts and charter schools in his state should make their own decisions based on the needs and outbreaks in their communities.
The Chicago Teachers Union is fighting Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to offer young and high-needs students the option of returning to the classroom starting in January. The union filed a request with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board on Monday for an injunction against what they called Lightfoot’s arbitrary reopening date. CTU is calling on the school district — the nation’s third-largest — to bargain over the decision to return to school and create enforceable safety standards. They say the district has failed to test school ventilation systems for their ability to curb the spread of the virus and has failed to hire a promised number of custodial workers.
New York City union and city officials speak on a daily basis. In contrast, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in an interview last week that Chicago officials aren’t listening to the union and think they can create a plan by themselves. That’s “dangerous,” she said.
“I don’t think there is a model right now,” said Davis Gates. “I think this is one big experiment, and we are asking families to take a leap of faith.”
As of Sunday, just over half of K-12 students in the nation attended schools that offer virtual-only plans, 32.5 percent attended “traditional” in-person schools and nearly 17 percent attended hybrid schools, according to Burbio, a data service that measures school openings. New York City students were included in the virtual-only data.
President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have long argued that schools should reopen. President-elect Joe Biden said on Tuesday he would work to see that most schools can be open by the end of his first 100 days in office if Congress funds proper safeguards and states and cities put strong public health measures in place.
New York City’s plan to reopen 850 school buildings this week for up to 190,000 students followed criticism over the decision to shutter the schools last month. The return offers a new approach that determines when schools should close based on specific Covid-19 cases at each school, rather than a previous trigger of a 3 percent citywide transmission rate. De Blasio called 3 percent “an abundance-of-caution number” that turned out to be “overly cautious.”
While city schools previously gave all students the option of hybrid learning, this time the district is starting back in-person only with younger students. The city is hopeful that most of those students will eventually be in school five days a week. They and school staff will be tested for the virus weekly. The plan also calls for personal protective equipment, social distancing, required masks, ventilation checks and special disinfecting on a nightly basis.
“I think the combination of an aggressive testing program, a mandated testing program, with all of the PPE pieces, is the model for any school system,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the local United Federation of Teachers, said in an interview. He presented the city’s school reopening plan to the American Federation of Teachers’ executive council as a model for other districts.
The plan reflects research showing schools can operate safely without spreading the virus. De Blasio said the city borrowed from lessons learned in Europe, Japan and Korea and created a “gold standard.”
“To the best of my knowledge, there’s very few places on earth that have this many measures in place simultaneously and including one of the highest levels of testing,” he said.
The plan’s “irreplaceable component,” he said, is the city’s so-called situation room, a partnership between the Department of Education, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Test and Trace Corps. The partnership is designed to make for a rapid response to positive Covid-19 cases in public schools and provide a single point-of-contact between schools and agency partners. UFT’s point person on health and safety issues speaks with situation room contacts on a daily basis.
“I would strongly urge any major school system to set up a similar situation room with a strong test-and-trace component,” de Blasio said. “We know wherever there is a case and what action we have to take quickly.”
Another lesson is that data transparency helps counter opposition to in-person instruction, he said. Publishing details on each school and the situation room’s daily indicators have played an important role in driving public confidence in the plan, he said.
“I think data is your friend,” he said. “We know in some parts of the United States, unfortunately they have been data phobic and science phobic and they have very sadly paid the price for that.”
Roughly 700,000 families are fully remote, and those in low-income and communities of color have complained of lack of reliable internet access and WiFi, and about 60,000 families lack devices. The mayor said there have been supply issues and that the city is having to reorder devices.
Black and Asian students are enrolled in in-person learning at smaller percentages, which families and advocates attribute to a lack of trust in the city’s ability to keep schools safe and a lack of communication and engagement.
Once the latest virus surge subsides, it makes sense to bring back students who are younger or that have special needs, as New York City has done, and then add other groups as a vaccine becomes more broadly available, said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who also has been promoting a blueprint for safely reopening schools. New York City also will be a model for other districts in terms of their safeguards and focus on testing, she said in an interview.
The experience in other cities and states has been much different.
In California, a local control approach has meant most of the state’s more than 6 million students are being taught online, as teachers unions across the state fight for better safety measures and money for regular testing. Democrats are increasingly distressed that California’s approach has widened the gap between low-income communities of color and wealthier white families, with one state lawmaker likening the system to “state-sanctioned segregation” and several families suing for “basic educational equality.”
California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas praised Weingarten’s plan for schools but said his state is not there yet.
“We’re processing this all. We need to make sure we get the cases down,” he said. “California is going in the wrong direction to even have this conversation right now.”
Los Angeles County, home to the nation’s second-largest school district, had a seven-day average positivity rate for coronavirus of 10.2 percent compared to 4.94 percent in New York City.
The Florida Education Association bitterly fought Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration’s drive to reopen schools in August, but the state’s largest teachers’ union could do little to stop it in court. An appeals court sided with the Republican governor, ensuring that face-to-face classes would return in Florida.
Districts have reported hundreds of Covid-19 cases — students and staff in Miami-Dade County, the fourth-largest district in the nation, had about 940 cases in the last 30 days alone — yet the state has avoided widespread campus outbreaks and shutdowns.
Chicago Public Schools spokesperson Emily Bolton said in a statement Monday that the district has been in discussions with CTU since school closures began and has worked to ensure schools are safe. “Numerous studies and data from schools in Chicago and throughout the country have shown that classrooms can safely reopen with proper mitigation strategies, and we must open our doors in order to counter the dire educational consequences for students who need support the most,” she said.
Weingarten last week described the situation in Chicago as “completely disrespectful and counterproductive.” While the UFT and de Blasio have had their issues, “they talk to each other all the time,” she said. In Chicago, the Chicago Tribune last week reported that one of Lightfoot’s top aides sent her an email with a bet on how long the union’s strike last year would last, she noted.
“The key to any of these successful reopenings in urban districts, at least, has been this kind of labor-management council that UFT has with the city of New York… It’s the reopening committees that Boston has,” she said. “You need to actually have people talking to each other, sharing the data and solving problems.”
Weingarten said she’s going to use her blueprint to see if she can “create some resets.” She hopes it helps lead to trust and ideas that can be implemented locally for both safety and instruction.
“I don’t care if you hate each other,” she said. “You have to talk to each other if you are being real about caring about children.”
Mackenzie Mays, Andrew Atterbury and Carly Sitrin contributed to this report.