NEW YORK — In the city that's lost about 20,000 people to COVID-19, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is staking his legacy on a bet that he can safely open the largest school system in the U.S.
"The whole country is looking at New York City and saying, how did they possibly do it?" de Blasio said this week, referring to the city's positive-test rate of 1%. "The unity that people have shown in this crisis — that is what we are going to bring to our next big opportunity to move forward. And that's reopening our schools."
Less than two weeks remain from the Sept. 10 start, though there's no consensus on his plan to do so. The teachers union has threatened a strike unless more than 1 million students and 120,000 teachers and staff get tested. The principals' union has pleaded for a delay. Dozens of student leaders have lobbied for remote-only instruction.
De Blasio hasn't budged, presenting his hybrid of in-school and at-home learning as a reward for New Yorkers' sacrifices.
The stakes could hardly be higher. Getting it right would help students make up months of learning lost to lockdown and free up frazzled parents juggling work and children. It also would go a long way to getting the city's hobbled economy back on its feet. Any missteps could risk a repeat of those dark days in March and April, when the coronavirus ripped through entire neighborhoods and decimated the city.
Custodians have been armed with powerful disinfectants. Schools that went without soap last year are promised unlimited hand sanitizer. Millions of masks have been procured. And just this week, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza gave principals yet another task — arranging outdoor teaching space while classroom ventilation in 1,100 buildings is checked.
"We have in some schools, classrooms that have no windows, so we have to make sure the air filters are working," said School Construction Authority President Lorraine Grillo.
Some teachers and students wonder whether all the activity is worth it. This year, even those attending school in person will find a pared down curriculum with programmed online lessons.
The classroom experience remains shrouded in uncertainty. Principals must staff and schedule for the mix of part-time in-school and remote instruction without knowing how many students and teachers will show up.
"The whole system of who is teaching what, and the choices we have in this regard are severely limited," Jacqui Getz, principal of 75 Morton, a Greenwich Village middle school, wrote in a note to parents earlier this month. "Please reimagine school. Our staff is not in one place. Your children are not in one place. I am asking that you think very hard about the literally hundreds of variables this requires to simply have adults in front of children."
Getz's solution is to offer pre-recorded lessons to everyone. Students at school will open their tablets just like their counterparts at home and follow along, glued to their screens with the in-class teacher standing before them.
"Children will access the program with the teacher present," Getz told parents. "After the lesson, the teacher will have LIVE interactions with students." Getz didn't respond to emailed requests for an interview.
Teachers at the school say they're worried that this type of instruction negates the experience of school attendance.
But the mayor and Carranza said teachers in the classroom can still provide emotional support, lead discussions and answer questions. All students, including those at home, will have real-time interaction with a teacher during the day, school officials say.
Many teachers are skeptical. "I don't think the mayor and schools chancellor have been candid with parents about what they can expect," said Evan O'Connell, who teaches at MELS, or Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School. The Queens school has about 860 students, grades 6-12, with an Outward Bound-influenced curriculum tilted toward experiential learning and group collaboration.
"We're a school focused on relationship building and now you're not allowed to talk and socialize and you must wear a mask all day," O'Connell said.
At 75 Morton, Getz told parents that its intensive three-day-a-week program of art, music and STEM classes is on hold. That would require students to stray from the classroom they've been assigned, increasing the risk of infection.
Hanging over the citywide debate is the issue of safety. Most of O'Connell's students commute by public transit. "We have students commuting with lots of transfers on buses," he said. "More opportunities for contact with the virus."
Gabe Lipschutz, 17, has a 45-minute subway commute to Bronx High School of Science from Manhattan. He's one of dozens of student leaders who asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo to require high schools to offer only at-home instruction.
With a surge of COVID-19 predicted in the next few months, according to public-health experts, he said it's inevitable that in-person classes for a school that serves almost 3,000 students will be canceled. If positive-test results exceed 3% citywide, de Blasio's plan calls for the entire system to go remote.
"The city should have done more to train teachers to be more effective with remote instruction," Lipschutz said.
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Samantha Daves, a chemistry teacher at Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School, said she supports the union's demand for universal testing before schools open. Students will be required to eat lunch in their classrooms — risky in a city where indoor dining in restaurants is prohibited, she said.
"This is where infections could occur," Daves said. "Universal testing mitigates the risk."
Natasha Capers, a Brooklyn parent and advocate at the nonprofit NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, said she struggled with the decision to keep her two children at home.
"They do learn more in school, but what if conditions aren't conducive to learning?" Capers said. "I have zero faith in the Department of Education," she added, questioning the decision to use rooms without windows just to create more space for classes limited to nine or 10 students.
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De Blasio contends that even with the compromises and restrictions, a little in-school instruction is better than none.
"The choice was, do you have children in a school where they can get the support of educators?" de Blasio said. "Even if it is two days a week, three days a week, even one day a week helps."
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