Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Update: a deal to delay the reopening of NYC schools and a new plan to provide regular Covid testing to students and staff

Today, the Mayor, the Chancellor and the unions – the UFT, CSA and DC37—announced a deal that would move back the first day of school to Wednesday, September 16. All students will begin remote instruction on that day. In-person learning in schools will begin the week of Monday Sept. 21 for blended learning students who have opted in. Teachers will report to buildings on September 8 as originally scheduled and will have six days to receive training, coordinate, collaborate and prepare. (Here's the link to the video if you want to watch the press conference - it starts about 25 minutes in.)

Among the health and safety measures announced today is that between 10-20% of all students and staff will be tested every month at every school by mobile testing units– a huge undertaking. Along with the promise of centrally-provided PPE, mandatory mask wearing, social distancing and improved classroom ventilation, the testing protocol led UFT President Michael Mulgrew to describe the plan “as the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in the USA.” The state and city positivity rate last week has been hovering around one percent for weeks, among the lowest in the nation. Last week, it was an extremely low 0.6% -0.7%

Before today’s announcement, uncertainty and chaos reigned supreme. The UFT was threatening a strike, and the CSA, the school administrator/principal union, was strongly pushing for a delay to ensure more time to prepare. Many principals spoke out publicly about the need for this delay, along with several CECs, teacher and parent groups. 

Last week the DOE released two new guidance documents, one entitled Blended Learning and Fully Remote Teaching and Learning and another called Preparing for the 2020-2021 School Year: FAQs for Blended and Remote Learning. These documents made it clear that schools would have to staff three different positions for each grade and/or subject; a “ Blended Learning On-Site Teacher to work with students who opted for in-person instruction, a “Blended Learning Remote Teacherto work with these students on the days that they are home, and yet another “Fully Remote Teacher in charge of teaching students who opted for 100% online instruction. At the same time, the DOE suggested that would be a new staff position called a “Virtual Content Specialistto develop online instructional materials and keep all three teachers on track. 

Principals responded with understandable frustration about the difficulty in staffing all three positions, especially given the hiring freeze. CSA president, Mark Cannizaro, warned of a “massive staff shortage”. Small schools simply don’t have enough classroom teachers to teach three sets of students concurrently, no less create a new position of content specialists, and have no funds to hire more. DOE has said they may hire more teachers or reassign administrators to teach classes in schools that need extra staffing, but so far has not done so. 

For larger schools, it’s possible they may have enough classroom teachers per grade and/or subject to teach three classes at a time, but how when in-person classes are limited to 10-12 students each? Indeed the FAQ from DOE now reveals that for Blended Learning Remote Teachers, the contractual class size limits will be allowed to double. In Kindergarten, that could mean 40 kids at a time. For grades 1-12, that could mean up to 64-68 students per online class. Here’s the relevant passage from the FAQ document (click to enlarge0:   


Instead, there really needs to be small classes to help students forge a stronger connection with their teachers, and to make up for learning loss & emotional trauma they suffered over the past year. Allowing class sizes to double in size ignores how difficult it is to keep students engaged when they are online. Some educators believe they need even smaller classes to be able to reach their students effectively and provide enough feedback when they’re relating to them through a computer screen rather then in a physical classroom. 

Be aware that for even blended learning students, remote instruction will be the main way they are provided with instruction and support in the coming months – as many will be able to attend school only one to two days a week, and even then, will not necessarily be interacting with their classroom teachers, but someone else on staff to “check in.” In fact, at the Mayor’s press conference last week, Linda Chen, Chief Academic Officer of DOE said that students will be encouraged to bring their devices to school to “maximize in-person learning.” What? 

Making the staffing situation even more difficult, many teachers are reportedly deciding to retire this year, or request child care leaves, and/ or are asking for health waivers so as not to have to teach in-person this year. Adding fuel to the fire, the Chancellor has appointed three highly paid educrats at Tweed– calling them “pandemic exceptions” to the hiring freeze. (I’m quoted in this same article about how unacceptable it is to further expand the bureaucracy, given the potential class size increases – calling it a “recipe for disaster.”) 

At the same time, the mayor has warned he may have to lay off 22,000 city workers, in response to looming budget cuts and sharp city revenue declines, unless the Legislature allows him to borrow more. All this has been made far worse by the Senate’s refusal to provide funding to schools to help them afford the extra staffing and safety precautions necessary. 

Governor Cuomo has been particularly egregious, first making inequitable cuts to NYC schools via his “pandemic adjustment,” and now withholding an additional 20% chunk of state aid. He remains stubbornly opposed to any revenue measures that would restore school aid by raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy or multi-million dollar pied-a-terre apartments. The pandemic is hard enough.  It would be far better if the federal government and the state were focused on helping our public schools respond to the myriad threats they face, rather than working against them.

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