The return of students to classrooms on Monday marks a historic moment for New York City and will be a defining part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s legacy.
But this does not happen without a fight.
For weeks, parents, teachers and union leaders urged the mayor to allow a remote option for students and teachers and he refused to entertain that notion. The mayor’s position is that putting children back in front of teachers is a crucial goal – not only for the well-being of students who have suffered significant learning loss since the pandemic of school closures in March 2020, but for the recovery. of the city as a whole.
The teachers’ union joined a lawsuit on Friday with other union leaders seeking to take town hall to court over its rush to get staff back to work. This follows weeks of recrimination by the United Teachers’ Federation, which forced the city through arbitration to pay medical and religious allowances for some teachers, who are otherwise mandated to receive a vaccine or be expelled.
But behind the political and legal battles, parents express deep anxiety over what they say are inadequate security protocols and growing concerns about the Delta variant.
These families – many of them families of color and low-income parents who signed up for low-rate in-person learning last school year – are holding a safety strike until the city offers an option to fully distance learning for all families who want it.
“All of the safety precautions that are supposed to be in place before our kids enter the school buildings are still not there and the Mayor and Chancellor continue to enlighten New York parents over and over again – much worse than they even did last year, ”said Paullette Healy, member of Parents for Responsive Equitable Safe Schools, or PRESS.
They criticized the city for planning to test just 10 percent of individuals in a school population every two weeks and for failing to indicate how many positive cases would trigger a school-wide shutdown. Questions also remain about its distance learning plans in the event that students need to be quarantined, potential staff shortages and schools’ ability to meet the three-foot social distancing requirement.
They said many families have been turned down over an option the city offers to parents whose children have health problems and expressed concerns over consent for the test being now optional given that elementary school children are no longer available. not vaccinated.
Healy is keeping her 14-year-old son and 12-year-old child, both fully vaccinated, at home this week. She also said her child’s school did not have any counselors or social workers in its “Summer Rising” program when her daughter suffered from anxiety. The program was designed to help children prepare for class and catch up after a school year of mostly distance learning.
She said her group received around 700 letters from parents who did not send their children and 150 others who requested medical accommodation but were turned down. So far, 6,485 parents have signed a petition calling for the reinstatement of a distance option.
Asked about their latest conversations with the DOE and City Hall, Healy said the department insisted the three-foot social distancing rule would be followed and that testing would be carried out whenever possible. But there’s no tracking or monitoring, she said, and it’s unclear what repercussions employees who fail to submit proof of vaccination by the Sept. 27 deadline will face.
“It’s the most frustrating thing,” Healy added. “The DOE will be releasing sound bites and guidelines, but there is no one to implement and it is up to the parents to understand this and the only logistical option that we parents have [is] keep our children at home. It is the only source of control we currently have.
As of Friday, 76% of DOE employees and 66% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 had been vaccinated, according to the DOE.
The reluctance to return to in-person learning echoes similar anxieties at the height of the pandemic last year, especially among families of color. Black and Asian families signed up for in-person learning at lower rates in the previous school year, expressing a lack of confidence in the city’s ability to keep schools safe and a lack of commitment with affected families.
“We’re still scared,” said Rashida Harris, a parent leader on the Parents’ Action Committee, saying families are in one place a year later. “We don’t trust the system. We don’t trust the city. We don’t trust the DOE because they don’t listen to us. We have met with them and submitted our requests and we have engaged with them to some extent since he struck.
Harris – who keeps her 11-year-old daughter at home because she is unemployed and can help her – claimed that many DOE central staff know the city is not ready “but has to follow their leader” while the DOE asks families to trust them.
“They are working with us doing their best, which leads us to believe that everything depends on the mayor,” she added.
She said her daughter enjoyed the Summer Rising program at first, but stayed in the same class the entire time and didn’t take any trips. She also struggled with distance learning last year.
Families say a remote option would allow the DOE to prioritize children who need in-person learning, such as students with disabilities, students in temporary housing, and students who have suffered an academic loss due to of Covid-19. They said schools did their best to provide information, but did not always receive information from the DOE.
Earlier this year, Chancellor of Schools Meisha Ross Porter – who is entering her first full school year and facing what is arguably the biggest test of her educational career – said some communities did not feel included in the discussions on reopening school buildings, citing the confidence to keep schools safe, and even some of the challenges she and her husband faced when making the decision to send their godchild to school.
In an interview with NY1 last week, Porter defended the plan to test 10 percent of a school’s population every two weeks, noting that the state has signaled its approval of the city’s testing protocol. She also called the vaccine a game changer and insisted there would be limited school closures as long as the city followed its protocols.
“We also have the ability to pivot and increase testing at any time,” she said. “Then we are ready.”
She maintained that the benefits of in-person learning outweighed the risks and said there would be options for families with medical needs.
“I have heard a lot from our parents who have students who have health issues that worry them about not getting vaccinated and therefore the option is open to request it,” Porter added. “We look forward to using this as a time to truly develop home schooling, medically fragile education, to bring what we’ve learned from the pandemic about distance learning.”
Advocates also said some families are afraid to keep their children at home for fear of facing punitive consequences.
The city has said that if a parent is not ready to send their children back to school, they will continue to talk to them to try to convince them. But Porter said if families kept their children at home for a period of time, they would contact the Children’s Services Administration if there was “a clear intention to prevent a child from going to school, period. final”.
She reiterated those sentiments at a recent meeting of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council.
“We are not threatening the families of SCA,” she said. “In fact, we have been in communication with ACS because neither ACS nor DOE want to monitor families and recognize that this is a very fragile time.”
Parents who work and cannot keep their children at home have also expressed concerns about the safety of school buildings. These families cited factors such as being essential workers, medically fragile family members who risk dying if their children bring Covid-19 home, and out-of-school children who could catch the virus from their families. brothers and sisters.
East Harlem parent Rosa Diaz said she wanted the DOE to plan ahead and come up with a hybrid model, but said she had no choice but to send her children back.
“I am a working parent and I have to go to work. If I don’t work, I don’t earn money and I can’t support my children, pay the rent and provide food, ”she said.
“I’m not happy with everything in person,” Diaz added. “All the students will come back and there will be no more 12 children in class. Classrooms aren’t huge either. I am very concerned about the distancing and disinfection of schools. “
She brings her children to school on Monday. Although she said her school communicates with families on a daily basis, she is not sure it will be safe.
Families and advocates wary of reopening schools with no remote option in place say they are exploring their legal options and discussing with lawyers why they have to sue the city for not offering an option to distance.
“We know there are a lot of lawsuits going on and we plan to boycott … elected officials that we have [calling for a remote option]Said Farah Despeignes, President of the Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group and the Community Education Council 8.
The DOE referred to its series of back-to-school family forums, a briefing for Spanish-speaking families on reopening schools, and family engagement forums in five boroughs in May. The department also highlighted a study showing that in-person learning at the city’s public schools was not linked to increased rates of COVID-19 transmission – indeed, when the city brought back a cohort of students. last year, transmission rates were much lower than in the city to grand.
“Our young people cannot waste another year of in-person learning, which is why we welcome all students again on Monday,” said Sarah Casasnovas, spokesperson for DOE, in a statement. “We have engaged with parents throughout the spring and summer to answer their questions and share vital information about our full reopening, and we will work with each family to ensure their children return to school in all safety. “