On reopening schools in the face of COVID

Of all the things that this pandemic has forced us to reckon with, the question of if and how to reopen our schools is among the most anguishing. Students need to be in school. Period. And a healthy, functioning, equitable education system is absolutely central to the wellbeing of any society — and our City.

For the past few months, I have been talking constantly with parents, teachers, and students about what school can and should look like in the midst of a global health crisis. The question of how to adequately, properly, and safely educate our children looms large in everyone’s minds as September fast approaches.

From these conversations, and from my own observations, two things are abundantly clear. First, it is imperative for schools to reopen and stay open. It is important for the pedagogical development and social well-being of children. And it is important to the hundreds of thousands of working parents who do not, or will no longer, have the ability of working remotely, or if they do, cannot oversee their children’s remote education while simultaneously working. Second, and more distressingly given the imperative I just described, the plan put forth by the Mayor and the Chancellor is nowhere near sufficient to adequately, properly, and safely educate children starting this September. There are too many outstanding questions and concerns that need to be addressed. Simply put, the Mayor’s plan is unsustainable, incomplete, and unsafe.

I am calling on the Mayor and the Chancellor to delay in-person learning until we can do so responsibly.

We must use this time to ensure that we have the safety protocols and PPE for teachers to feel safe going back to school, adapting remote learning so that it works for all students and designing safeguards to catch failing students before it’s too late, to explain grading to parents and students, and to develop a comprehensive plan that can meet the childcare crisis that many parents are facing.

Students who require IEPs deserve answers and details on their learning plans. Those who rely on school buses deserve answers. Families deserve clear answers on who their classroom instructors will be. Families with multiple children deserve a guarantee on schedule coordination. New Yorkers eating at grab and go meal sites every day deserve answers.

The plan we received is light on details. It calls for custodians to ensure that soap is fully stocked, but offers no details about the supply chain to guarantee that happens. It calls for a 10-day quarantine but does not mandate a second negative COVID test — all but guaranteeing that some students who are still carrying COVID will return to their classroom environments. We are told that filters are being upgraded “where appropriate.” When lives are on the line, we need to know what “where appropriate” means.

These are just some of the many issues that are still unanswered. Parents and educators need detailed, specific plans around every aspect of the re-opening process, from safety to educational success. Unfortunately, after having months to come up with a thoughtful plan, the Mayor and Chancellor presented us with something that is destined to fail. Ours is the greatest city in the world. Let’s not set ourselves up for failure.

Ever since COVID-19 hit, we have learned to expect the unexpected and to adapt to previously unimaginable circumstances. New Yorkers are extraordinarily resilient and have shown over the past few months that we can do anything. Our city will come back stronger than it was before and we will learn lessons from the horrors of this pandemic.

We can and will ensure our children receive the great public education they deserve. But we have to do it right.

NYS Senator, District 22.