What’s old is new again when it comes to the ongoing power struggle between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
They butted heads in mid-March over closing the country’s largest school system at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, four months down the line, they’re back at it, this time over when — and how — those schools will reopen.
It began July 2 when de Blasio announced schools would reopen in September, providing some initial details: Face masks would be required, as would social distancing and frequent hand washing.
He faced near-immediate backlash, notably from Cuomo. Although de Blasio cited some poll claiming 75 percent of parents wanted their children physically back in classrooms, Cuomo reminded the mayor the choice to close and reopen schools is up to the state, not the city.
Cuomo stressed the importance of safety over anyone’s desire to return to in-person instruction.
“If it’s not safe for my child, it’s not safe for anyone’s child,” Cuomo told reporters during a July 8 news conference. “If I wasn’t prepared to be a school teacher in that school, I wouldn’t ask anyone else to be a school teacher in that school.”
Final decisions regarding which school districts across the state — if any — will reopen in the fall will be made during the first week of August. It will be based on a number of factors in each region, primarily on infection rates and whether the region encompassing the schools are in the final phase of economic reopening.
But while school officials have their own homework regarding specific school reopening plans due to the governor by the end of the month, city comptroller Scott Stringer got a head start. His office released a plan over the weekend he called “Strong Schools for All,” outlining specific proposals and measures which would allow city schools to reopen safely.
Those measures include mandating face coverings for everyone as well as physical distancing. He also believes students should be grouped with a small group of kids, and they stay in that group. And just to be safe, there should be pooled testing, aggressive contact tracing and daily temperature scans.
Where de Blasio made broad claims, Stringer stressed details, details, details. And according to Dan Gannon, a history teacher at Bronx Leadership Academy II in Concourse Village, de Blasio really needed those details.
“It just makes me nervous to see that there’s no specifics,” Gannon said. “It seems a little pie-in-the-sky.”
Stringer’s plan outlines specific measures the city’s public schools will likely need in order to reopen safely. And while he says they’re all important, it’s doubtful if all can be implemented in every single city school before they are expected to reopen in less than two months.
In addition to standard social distancing practices, Stringer recommended each city school needed at least one full-time nurse to reopen — something not available at 10 percent of the city’s public schools.
Stringer also recommended hiring at least one guidance counselor and social worker per school, providing parent support in multiple languages, and giving each student one free internet-connected device for continued remote learning.
Although the emphasis is on returning to in-person instruction, remote learning is not over and done with. de Blasio said in-person instruction would only take place anywhere from one to three days per week, meaning remote learning would make up the rest.
But what would these in-person classes look like while the virus is still a threat? According to Paula White, the executive director of the nonprofit Educators for Excellence, it is important for all teachers to set clear rules and expectations from the very first day, especially for younger students, and especially during a pandemic.
“We will need to devote more time to that than we have in the past,” White said, “because we have to have our youngest learners understand what is OK, what’s not OK, and how to make it safe.”
White also stressed the importance of teacher safety, especially since the city’s education department reported up to 20 percent of them are high-risk for serious complications from the virus that causes COVID-19. Additionally, teaching is a profession notorious for being underfunded, but it can’t remain that way if city schools are to reopen.
“We all have that vision in our minds of health care workers who were using black garbage bags as” personal protective equipment, she said. “That’s the kind of thing we cannot have.”
Gannon’s school is located in the South Bronx, one of the communities that was hit hardest by the pandemic. While he understands everyone — including him — wants to get back to school as soon as possible, it might do more harm than good if it’s not done right.
“Is it worth the life of a child?” Gannon asked. “We’ve already lost a lot of people in our community — family members of students — during this time. Are we really looking to do that all over again?”
CORRECTION: Dan Gannon, a Bronx schoolteacher, said the community has lost a lot of people to the coronavirus, including family members of students. A quote in the July 16 edition erroneously included students in that grouping.