Sunday schools

School districts are slow to follow New York City’s lead on reopening schools

“It’s not a lack of willpower, but they just find it a huge challenge.”

New York City began reopening for some students with the powerful local teachers’ union on board in September, then briefly closed in late November. Some schools are already open again for face-to-face lessons.

Officials tout the city’s use of data, a “situation room” for agencies to quickly coordinate and respond to school cases, and working with the union on guarantees for teachers and students. The American Federation of Teachers is promoting the plan as part of a blueprint for the safe reopening of schools. De Blasio said his message to local leaders is: “do it. We’ve proven that you can keep school safe if you’re prepared to take tough enough measures. “

Across the country, however, some districts, large and small, are showing no signs of reopening or lacking plans on how to get children back to school buildings. Officials in other districts continue to fight with unions over the science and politics of reopening or remain committed to their own approaches.

“We can’t think of our schools as a monolith like New York City, and I think that’s a blessing for us in New Jersey,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said during ‘a press briefing on December 2. He has been criticized by the New Jersey Education Association for “downplaying the danger” of in-person teaching.

While he has been pushing schools to stay open, Murphy also said his state’s more than 700 districts and charter schools should make their own decisions based on the needs and epidemics in their communities.

The Chicago Teachers Union is opposing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to offer youth and students with high needs the opportunity to return to class starting in January. The union filed an application with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board on Monday for an injunction against what they called Lightfoot’s arbitrary reopening date. CTU is calling on the school district – the third in the country – to negotiate the decision to return to school and create enforceable safety standards. They say the district has not tested school ventilation systems for their ability to curb the spread of the virus and has not hired the promised number of guardians.

The New York City Union and city officials speak out daily. In contrast, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in an interview last week that Chicago officials don’t listen to the union and think they can create a plan themselves. It’s “dangerous,” she said.

“I don’t think there is a model right now,” Davis Gates said. “I think this is a great experience, and we ask families to take a leap of faith.”

On Sunday, just over half of the nation’s K-12 students attended schools with virtual-only plans, 32.5% attended “traditional” schools in person, and nearly 17% attended hybrid schools, according to Burbio, a data service that measures school openings. New York City students were included in virtual data only.

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have long argued that schools should reopen. President-elect Joe Biden said on Tuesday he would work to ensure most schools can be opened by the end of his first 100 days in office if Congress funds appropriate guarantees and states and cities put in place strong public health measures.

New York City’s plan to reopen 850 school buildings this week for up to 190,000 students follows criticism of the decision to close schools last month. The feedback offers a new approach that determines when schools should close based on specific cases of Covid-19 at each school, rather than a previous trigger of a 3% city-wide transmission rate. De Blasio called the 3% a “cautious abundance figure” which turned out to be “too cautious”.

While the city’s schools previously offered all students the option of blended learning, this time the district is starting again in person only with younger students. The city hopes that most of these students will end up going to school five days a week. They and school staff will be tested for the virus every week. The plan also includes personal protective equipment, social distancing, mandatory masks, ventilation controls and special disinfection every night.

“I think the combination of an aggressive testing program, a mandatory testing program, with all the pieces of PPE, is the model for any school system,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the local Federation of united teachers, in an interview. He presented the plan to reopen the city’s schools to the executive board of the American Federation of Teachers as a model for other districts.

The plan reflects research showing schools can operate safely without spreading the virus. De Blasio said the city had borrowed lessons learned from Europe, Japan and Korea and created a “gold standard”.

“To the best of my knowledge, there are very few places on earth that have so many measures in place simultaneously and including one of the highest levels of testing,” he said.

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