New York, NY – In less than a month, teachers and principals are expected back in classrooms now that the infection rate for the coronavirus (COVID-19) has remained at one percent throughout New York State, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in July that students at the city’s more than 700 public schools will have blended in-person lessons and online classes, then confirmed earlier this month, that the K-to-12 educational institutions will resume for the Fall 2020 semester on Sept. 10.
The mayor’s plan for reopening schools will include alternating 50-percent of students between digital classes and in-person classes; providing school nurses, guidance counselors, social workers and mental health professionals in schools that lack those resources; utilizing other spaces in schools to accommodate social distancing learning; supplying schools with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); daily cleaning by custodial staff and contact tracing for the virus.
There will also be changes to the HVAC system of schools; school bus schedules will alternate for students; there will be an additional staff for screenings; and school closure procedures will be implemented if there is an outbreak of COVID-19, according to the mayor and the Department of Education.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew wrote an op-ed in June, stating that reopening schools without enough federal funding through the HEROES Act for teachers and support staff to accommodate social distancing learning in schools poses an “unacceptable risk” to children, staff and families.
“Airlines, oil companies and even hospital chains with large surpluses have been the beneficiaries of multi-billion-dollar federal bailouts,” said Mulgrew. “Our states and cities — not to mention our children — deserve their own rescue measures.”
The Council of School Supervisors & Administrators President Mark Cannizzarro stated in July, he does not believe that principals and other school leaders were given enough guidance or time to effectively plan for the new semester.
“Ultimately it is the responsibility of the DOE to set policy and provide resources required to implement their plans,” said Cannizzaro. “In the meantime, please know we are advocating relentlessly on your behalf for strong safety protocols as prerequisite to opening, clear guidance around programming and scheduling, and sufficient staffing to implement both in-person and remote instruction. You deserve nothing less, and we will not stop fighting to support you.”
Donna McGuire, an assistant principal at P.S./I.S. 18 – Park Terrace School in Manhattan, is worried about schools reopening as early as Sept. 10. It takes weeks to work with teachers on lesson plans, schedules and preparing students for the next school year, but to get faculty to learn how to implement social distancing learning and work with custodians to retrofit HVAC systems and other buildings amenities in three weeks will be hectic.
“I love what I do. I miss the students, I miss the excitement, I miss it,” said McGuire, a 16-year veteran of the school system. “We know that we need to go back. We know the students need to go back. We know we need to keep New York moving, but we definitely need to safeguard ourselves before doing that, but we need to have steps before just jumping in.”
Typically, ideas for class lessons, class sizes and budget breakdowns are given to faculty and staff members as early as May so that programming can begin before the next school year, according to McGuire.
“On Aug. 6, school leaders were asked to submit the school plans and they had four days to complete it. On Aug. 14, we had to submit a model for blended learning,” said McGuire. “It is difficult to program, because we are not certain of the number of students and staff returning for in-person. Even with the blended and the technology, we really do need a couple more weeks, but my true concern is the HVAC system.”
The District 6 school was built 25 years ago, it shares a playground, cafeteria, auditorium and gymnasium with another school that was built 20 years ago, according to McGuire.
“Some classrooms have no windows, some classes have air conditioning and some classes have different types of ventilation, but we need to prepare every school in the city,” said McGuire. “If the school leaders say, ‘hey we are not ready’ it creates an element of doubt in the families who are like ‘they are not ready, why?'”
Custodians will not simply be maintaining the building as they have in the past years, according to McGuire.
“Custodians work hard everyday to ensure the water fountains, hallways and bathrooms are clean, but now there are these extra steps in sanitation and they need to make sure that they have the necessary cleaning resources they were promised before we start,” said McGuire, a 10-year CSA union representative.
The Sept. 10 start date is for students, but on Aug. 31, school leaders are expected back in buildings and on Sept. 8 teachers are expected to be back too.
New York City homes have multigenerational households and McGuire is concerned about what happens if one person catches the virus and sent it back to their whole family.
“Sometimes they are going home to a grandmother,” said McGuire. “Sometimes parents are exposed, and their kids are these students who are coming into the school.”
While her school has two nurses, she is not sure if they are coming back or if they themselves might have preconditions that will make it difficult for them to return, according to McGuire. She is not sure if other staff members with other underlying conditions will return either.
Danielle Bello, a speech language pathologist at M.S. 324 in Manhattan, doesn’t want to get her husband, a kidney transplant recipient, sick. Her spouse is also considered immuno-compromised because of his battle with kidney disease.
“My family falls under two separate CDC-risk categories, but because my personal body is in danger, just my household, I’m not a person eligible to apply to work remotely,” said Bello. “He takes medication that oppresses his immune system, which ostensibly means if he contracts this illness he would have a favorable outcome.”
As a speech pathologist at a co-located school, which shares a building with three other schools, Bello travels to at least 10 classes within a day and her students often need one-on-one help to progress.
She also works at a building that was built in 1994, and is the size of a full city block.
“We have four custodians for the whole building,” said Bello. “We know there is no budget to hire additional employees, or staff additional hours, but union members are being told these deep cleanings are going to be taking place nightly.”
Federal funds isn’t coming and the Empire State is running a deficit.
“Where are we going to get the money?” said Bello. “We have a letter from the professional custodians’ union saying, ‘do not go above and beyond your job. Your health is more important.'”
At least a dozen of the 25 exhaust fans at her school do not work, nine fire dampers are inoperable and the entire building management system is burned out, said the mom of two of kids five and under.
“This means we are at 50-percent ventilation, pre-COVID was 80-percent and obviously with COVID you are looking for a higher percentage,” said Bello. “We have custodians fiddling around in the basement with a building that was built in 1994 with no available replacement parts in the market. So, if something breaks, is not working or the custodian gets sick or transferred, that means there is no one who knows what is going on to the system.”
The co-location of schools in one building utilizing some of the same resources is also a problem, according to Bello. Each school is funded based on enrollment and the different student bodies are not counted as one, so different schools will receive different amounts of funds. Her school went from 450 students to 340 students. Typically, there are 1,400 students throughout the building.
“We never have enough soap in the bathrooms. Finding paper towel at the school is a political effort,” said Bello. “The budget is not year-to-year, but three years running.”
Despite efforts to utilize spaces like gyms, cafeterias and auditoriums for more classroom space, the classrooms that schools already have may not be used because they fail the standards required for proper ventilation.
“The mayor said, ‘if they don’t pass the standards we are not going to use them’, but we know there are so many classrooms like that because simply their windows don’t open,” said Bello. “It feels like a doomed from the start effort.”
Bello has no idea how sports teams, gym classes or art classes are going to fare under the budget restrictions.
“If you are going to put children in a very controlled militarized environment, you are going to have to give them outlets for creativity or there is going to behavior problems,” said Bello. “This new system was designed by people that don’t spend time with children.”