NYC Council Members Doubt De Blasio on School Reopening Plan
(Bloomberg) -- New York City Council members confronted Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top school and health officials Wednesday with concerns raised by educators and parents who say the city’s back-to-school preparations remain fraught with uncertainty. They fear that student safety is imperiled at a time when the delta variant continues to spread.
The lawmakers grilled Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter and Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi about plans for the system’s full reopening on Sept. 13. The mayor has insisted that its 1 million students return for in-school instruction, with no detailed plan for online remote instruction for middle or high schools if classrooms must be closed or students quarantined due to Covid-19 infection.
“Is this the best we can do? Are we effectively balancing the health and safety of students and staff with the education needs of students,” asked Councilman Mark Treyger, chairman of the education committee, who presided over the hearing. “There’s been a major communications gap. The plan we have before us has to go much farther. I’m in support of a remote option for our families.”
The hearing presented the first response to the mayor’s back-to-school plans from other elected officials, including city Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. He joined Treyger in calling for parallel remote instruction, saying classroom closures and student quarantines were “inevitable.”
“I feel like it’s going to happen anyway,” said Councilman Justin Brannan, a south Brooklyn Democrat. “I just don’t understand why you’re not offering it now.”
Porter assured the council that the Education Department will remain flexible about remote instruction.
“While quarantining, learning will not stop,” the school chancellor said. “Our educators have over a year of experience teaching both online and in-person during a pandemic. For elementary school students quarantining, live online instruction will be provided. Middle and high school students in partial classroom closures will receive asynchronous remote instruction, as well as office hours with their teachers.”
At a news briefing, though, de Blasio continued to insist that the schools would open to full enrollment without offering remote instruction. “Our kids need to be back in school. They have suffered, too many of them have suffered,” the mayor said when asked about parents’ concerns about the rise in coronavirus infection.
City Health Department data show that as of Aug. 21, children from 13 to 17 had a 5.38% positivity rate, with 4.78% among ages 5 to 12 -- both above the citywide average of 3.74%.
The mayor said about 325,000 kids in the 12-17 age range have been vaccinated. “We will go the extra mile to make sure everyone is ready, everyone is safe.”
Yet the schools currently have no method to determine which students have received shots, Porter said during the hearing. That issue remains open to discussion, she said.
All 700 schools serving students 12 and older will offer on-site vaccination during the first week of school, Porter said. Other vaccination sites will be set up in the department’s administration buildings to serve staff workers, who have been mandated to get a shot before Sept. 27, she said.
“The multilayered measures implemented by the DOE made schools some of the safest places to be during the Covid-19 pandemic, and we ended last year with a 0.03% seven-day average positivity rate,” Porter told the council. “This school year we have a powerful source of protection that we did not have last year: vaccinations. These incredibly safe and effective vaccines will do so much to keep our school communities safe.”
Treyger said he’s concerned that de Blasio and other city officials have underestimated the probability that classrooms could be closed and students kept home due to the contagious nature of the delta variant.
“I know the mayor wants to project an image that everything is under control, that everything is fine. But he’s winging it again,” Treyger said in a Tuesday interview while preparing for the hearing. Handing out paper or online recorded homework assignments to quarantined students “isn’t instruction, it’s negligence,” he said.
Treyger said city officials have been unrealistic in expecting that parents will sign consent forms for their unvaccinated children to submit to weekly testing because, unlike last year, without a home-instruction option the city can’t dismiss students who refuse to be tested.
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