New York City is delaying the start of its school year by 10 days, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday, as part of a deal to avert a teachers’ strike and calm principals and parents anxious about the start of in-person classes.
The city’s 1.1 million children will not have any in-person or remote classes until Sept. 21.
The deal, which was hammered out during an overnight bargaining session between City Hall and the unions representing the city’s teachers and principals, is intended to give educators more time to prepare for the most closely watched reopening effort in the country. It is also meant to give the mayor a longer runway to pull off one of the most ambitious, and riskiest, city initiatives in decades.
The mayor announced the new date about a week before the scheduled first day of school, leaving working families little time to rearrange their schedules. The announcement followed weeks of escalating pressure from union leaders, elected officials, teachers and principals who said they would not be ready to reopen as planned on Sept. 10. The city’s powerful teachers’ union was poised this week to authorize an illegal strike for its 75,000 members.
Fulfilling a major union demand, Mr. de Blasio said the city would require random testing every month in all city schools starting in October.
Teachers will report to their schools as scheduled next week, and will spend the next few weeks physically preparing classrooms for children, ensuring that their children have devices for remote learning, and meeting their students virtually.
If the mayor succeeds in bringing many of New York’s children back into classrooms, he will stand apart from every other big-city mayor in America, all of whom have opted to start the school year remote-only, as the virus has surged in their cities and political opposition to reopening has intensified.
The push to reopen schools, which is crucial for New York City’s economic recovery, has been an enormous effort in a system with 1.1 million children and 75,000 teachers, not to mention tens of thousands of administrators and other workers.
The mayor had argued that the system’s mostly low-income, Black and Latino students urgently needed in-person classes, an assertion widely supported by education experts.
New York has an enormous population of vulnerable public schoolchildren who have been largely failed by remote learning: About 750,000 public schoolchildren in New York City are poor, roughly 200,000 have disabilities and 114,000 are homeless.
But the mayor’s insistence that schools would be ready to reopen as originally scheduled on Sept. 10 frustrated many teachers and principals, who said they did not believe Mr. de Blasio understood the depth of the challenges they faced on the ground.
Officials have vowed to distribute four million face masks, 3.5 million bottles of hand sanitizer and 80,000 containers of disinfectant wipes. More than 3,500 electrostatic sprayers — special equipment that has been used on the subway — are being deployed to disinfect surfaces.
But getting personal protective gear and sufficient soap and hand sanitizer into the city’s public school buildings is only a first step.
Educators raised concerns about ventilation in aging school buildings and said they did not understand how often they or their students should be tested. And beyond safety concerns, principals said they did not have enough information or support to essentially create two complementary versions of school: one in-person and one online.
Throughout the summer, principals already facing budget cuts did not know how many children would actually report to school, or how many staff they would have to teach students in the building and online.
Michael Mulgrew, the influential leader of the city’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, had faced enormous pressure from his members who were fearful about returning to classrooms. The business community has urged him to not obstruct reopening, but he had suggested that he might authorize an illegal strike as soon as this week.
Mr. Mulgrew had declared that the mayor’s legacy would be tarnished if he had reopened schools as originally planned, suggesting that it would be “one of the biggest debacles in history.”
But on Tuesday, Mr. Mulgrew sat beside the mayor in City Hall’s stately Blue Room, and declared, “We now can say that the New York City public schools system has the most aggressive policies and safeguards of any school system in America.”
Under the mayor’s plan, most children will report to school between one and three days a week, and have online classes the other days. They will return to classrooms that have been transformed since they left suddenly in March.
Desks will be spaced six feet apart, so most classes will have only nine or 10 children at a time, about a third of the typical capacity. Students, teachers and other staff will be required to wear masks all day, except for a quick lunch period held in classrooms.
Many hallways will be marked with signs indicating where students should line up to maintain distance in hallways and bathrooms. Windows will be open, even during cold and rainy days, to allow for more fresh air.
The research on school reopening in places with similarly low virus transmission rates largely bolsters the mayor’s decision to welcome children back into classrooms. Research from Europe has shown that schools can successfully open as long as the virus is contained in their region and families understand there will be some unavoidable turbulence.
New York City has so far defied predictions of a second wave of the outbreak. In recent days, the positivity rate for virus tests has hovered around only 0.6 percent, far lower than the national average.
Public health experts generally agree that the city’s schools can reopen, as long as adequate testing and strict safety measures are in place.
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Updated Sept. 1, 2020
The latest on how schools are reopening amid the pandemic.
- New York City has delayed the opening of schools by 10 days to give teachers and principals more time to prepare and to avert a possible teachers’ strike.
- Under pressure from schools and advocates, the federal government has agreed to make it easier for schools to feed poor children.
- How a New York Times science reporter made the decision whether to send her children back to school.
- A conversation with a former National Teacher of the Year turned congresswoman on reopening schools.
Reopening schools could also help stabilize the economy. Nearly 70 percent of employers ranked the reopening as one of the three most important issues determining their employees’ return to the office, according to a recent survey conducted by a business group, the Partnership for New York City.
Still, a broad coalition of elected officials and parent groups had called on the mayor to delay the start of school by at least a week, including the unions representing teachers and principals, along with hundreds of principals and more than two dozen City Council members. The Council speaker, Corey Johnson, and Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, had also sought a postponement.
“Please don’t take this needless risk,” Mr. Williams said over the weekend. “It’s truly not worth it.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had also cast doubt on the mayor’s decision, at one point saying he was unsure he would send his daughters if they were still of school age. Mr. Cuomo has said all schools in the state can reopen, but has been conspicuously absent from the push to reopen schools in New York City.
On Monday, Mr. Cuomo said he expected the turbulent experience of colleges — many of which have had to at least temporarily shelve their in-person education plans, following outbreaks — to be “replicated” by the state’s schools.
“I think you will see K-to-12, just like colleges, they’ll have a plan, they’ll open, and that you will see a certain number that close,” Mr. Cuomo said.
No New York City mayor has faced this much pressure over a single decision in the last century, said Wilbur C. Rich, a professor emeritus at Wellesley College who has written two books on mayoral politics.
“I hope he can pull it off, but I really think that it’s going to be very difficult,” Professor Rich said. “If it collapses on him, that’s going to be his legacy — he’s the guy who sent these kids back to schools.”
Polls and interviews suggest that Black and Hispanic parents, who tend to live in neighborhoods most heavily impacted by the virus, are more fearful and unsure about whether to send children back.
White parents are more willing to send their children back into classrooms than parents of color, according to a recent poll conducted by The Education Trust, a research group. About 34 percent of city parents have already decided to keep their children at home full time, and that number is almost certain to climb over the next few weeks.
Still, over 60 percent of parents are tentatively planning to send their children back into schools later this month — over 600,000 families.