New York City Could Lead on Reopening Schools, But It Isn’t

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“If anybody can open schools,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “we can open schools.”

It was Friday morning, and at first glance, it sure looked as if Cuomo was throwing the school doors open — declaring that teachers and students could go back to their classrooms five days a week. As a parent of a son in a New York public school, I was thrilled. As I’ve written before, I think it is crucial that students get back into their classrooms.

After being pummeled by Covid-19 like no other state in March and April, New York had fought back like no other state. Its positivity rate — the percentage of people who test positive on a given day — which had peaked at 50% in the spring, was down to 1%. That low infection rate was the key for Cuomo.

“We have the best infection rate in the country,” he boasted, only slightly exaggerating. (Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have lower positivity rates.) He noted that “remote learning can be quite unequal,” which is probably the most important reason it should be an absolute last resort. But it also makes it difficult for parents to go back to work. It deprives children of the chance to socialize with friends. And even for the well-off, remote learning leaves a lot to be desired, as everyone discovered last spring.   

Cuomo went on to say that the state’s 749 school districts would have to have a reopening plan approved by the state, with an emphasis on testing and contract tracing. That’s fine. But he also made it clear he wasn’t willing to buck the state’s teachers’ unions, which have been pushing hard for remote learning, contending their members’ lives would be in danger if they had to go back into the classroom. “The teachers have to agree to go back,” Cuomo said. “I am telling you there is going to need to be significant discussion because teachers are raising many issues.”

He added, “You’re not going to order a teacher into a classroom and say, ‘Do your job even though you don’t want to be here and you feel like your health might be threatened.’ They’re not going to be able to teach in that environment.”

At this, my heart sank. Across the country, teachers’ unions have resisted going back into the classroom, and many big-city school districts have capitulated. In some districts, like Miami-Dade’s, where the positivity rate has been in the double digits, it’s hard to disagree with that decision. But in San Francisco, the positivity rate is below 3.5% — yet school officials still agreed to begin the year remotely. (Under the terms of a deal negotiated with the union, teachers will be required to interact with students online for two hours a day.) 

You have to start wondering, is there any infection rate that would bring teachers back into the classroom? Waiters, construction workers, hairdressers — many people are now assuming some small amount of pandemic risk to return to their jobs. Are teachers really going to just wait it out until a vaccine arrives? The answer may depend on what happens in New York City.

For the moment, at least, New York City has chosen the worst approach of all: a blend of remote and in-class learning. Small cohorts of students would be in the classroom some days and at home other days, replaced in the classroom by a different cohort. (My wife and I were informed recently that under this plan, our son Mack would be in a classroom seven days a month.) This doesn’t help working parents, but it also won’t help minimize infections. Children who are at home three days a week most likely aren’t going to be isolated; they are going to be in contact with a lot more people than children in school all day, be it through study groups or hanging out with friends. And the on-again, off-again classroom experience is bound to be suboptimal.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City’s public school teachers, had been threatening to sue if the union felt the schools were not safe enough. Mulgrew leaped on Cuomo’s announcement. “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,” he said.

To sum up, with less than a month to go before school is supposed to start, the governor has said New York is safe enough for schools to open, the union is saying that the schools are not safe enough, the education department has devised a half-baked plan that pleases no one, and the mayor, Bill de Blasio, is out to lunch. Despite the extraordinarily low positivity rate — a rate that should serve as an incentive to get New York’s classrooms reopened — the city is nowheresville.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Proper leadership could energize the city around the issue of reopening schools, and New York City could be a model for how it’s done. Delay the start of school by a month or even more if necessary. Bring in an expert in reconfiguring schools and classrooms and put her in charge. Partner with the private sector to help come up with the tens of millions of dollars and expertise required for new air-filtration systems, new technology and the extra space that will be needed to allow for social distancing — and the additional teachers that will be needed because class sizes are going to be smaller. Devise a plan for when (not if) someone comes down with Covid-19. Involve the union so that its input becomes part of the plan. 

With so much chaos and uncertainty, many New York City parents who can afford it are applying to private schools. I’m sad to say that my wife and I are among them. Last week, we got on a Zoom conference call with the chief operating officer of one such school to hear its plan for reopening. We were blown away by the care and attention to detail this school had brought to the task. Teachers had an area, like a goalie in hockey, that students weren’t allowed to cross. Plexiglass divided students who had to sit at the same table. Nobody sat across from one another. As for those who preferred to attend remotely, they would participate by computer — not for two hours, but for the entire school day. 

I called the COO a few days later. She told me that it had always been the school’s plan to reopen physically. “I thought it was important that we commit to opening. So we committed,” she said. “We followed the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics” — which has strongly come out in favor of getting children back in the classroom. “There are creative ways to do it,” she added.

Yes, there are. A 1% positivity rate is a terrible thing to waste.

She asked that I not identify the school.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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