Late last week, the New York City Health Commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, resigned. That same day, the city’s School Chancellor sent out a city-wide email to parents outlining protocols that will be taken upon the school reopening, slated for in-person instruction this September. His protocols weren’t dissimilar to other districts’ safety plans: masks are required, extra cleaning will be done, and social distancing will be practiced.
What remains unclear in New York City is if parents will choose to even send their kids, or if teachers will feel safe enough to return. For a while, we watched Governor Cuomo post live news conferences where he updated the entire country about where his state stood amid the pandemic and what kind of actions they were taking to flatten the curve.
Often those conferences were immediately followed by a completely different message from NYC Mayor de Blasio, essentially negating points the governor made in his news conferences — one being the school closure plan early on. It became necessary to bring your popcorn to every scheduled news conference, because nobody knew what Mayor de Blasio would say.
All eyes were on New York and what might happen next as the state’s reopening plan went into effect. The back-and-forth would almost be laughable if we weren’t talking about the health and safety of millions of students and hundreds of teachers across New York City.
What we know now is that most schools across the country will take on some kind of hybrid form of learning, a combination of in-person and distance learning. Parents, teachers, and students, need and expect full transparency about these plans, and any secondary plans, and they aren’t getting that yet.
USA Today reported on what states are doing, including New York State, which is essentially playing it all by ear, and taking it day by day; some towns will adopt a full distance learning approach for the entire school year, while other districts, like in Buffalo, have pushed the opening of school to October. In Syracuse, high school students will be engaged in learning at home and fully remote. But in New York City, the plan is to have in-person learning several days a week (with a fully remote option — for those who have the means to make that choice).
With over 1.1 million students attending the public school system in New York City, the need for a solid plan — a viable, clearly communicated plan to safely open and educate these students — is overdue. As a parent myself, I don’t feel comfortable with my own town’s plan to reopen schools. If my kid needed to travel a subway line to get to school, I can’t say I’d send them. If I could not afford a computer for them, what would that mean for their education? What if their teacher gets sick; what happens to those kids? Masks can only do so much. The facts, the science, tell the only story we need to know — that this virus is unpredictable, and choices to open schools cannot be done without thought, care, and consideration for students, teachers, and staff alike.
Once a COVID hotspot, New York City now has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. But understandably, in a city still emotionally reeling from the trauma, many teachers and students simply don’t feel safe going back.
“Viral infection rates only tell one part of the story,” said New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta in a press release. “… Among the concerns that remain is the lack of guidance on specific procedures for closure, testing and contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 case in a school.” When it comes to the health and safety of students and faculty, this is not something any district can — or should — just play by ear.
The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew, even chimed in last Friday in a New York Times article: “As Governor Cuomo noted, parents and teachers must be confident that schools are safe before they can reopen … In New York City that is still an open question.” Amid concerns of having enough school nurses to staff all school buildings, and many schools operating with poor or outdated ventilation systems, among other things, how could anyone feel confident?
There are no guarantees with the virus. We need look no further than the nine students who tested positive for the coronavirus in Georgia, after a photo of unmasked students changing classes in the hallway went viral. We cannot guarantee that people–especially young kids– will follow the rules, especially not consistently throughout the day, especially when many adults are vocally opposed to wearing masks in public spaces.
The reality is this: in states where schools have reopened with in-person learning being part of the plan, students are returning home and testing positive for the virus. And in a place like New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak just a few short months ago, you’d think that “better safe than sorry” would be a mantra they’d pay closer attention to.