NYC school reopening plans show ‘alarming lack of direction,’ union leader says

Principal union chief Mark Cannizzaro speaks to educators at a July 2017 training event.
Principal union chief Mark Cannizzaro speaks to educators at a July 2017 training event. (Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat)

Citing an “alarming lack of direction” in the city’s plans for reopening school buildings, a Sept. 10 start date seems increasingly difficult to achieve, according to a letter sent this week by the head of the union that represents school administrators.

“It is abundantly clear that the [Department of Education] has not provided you with the guidance and relevant information necessary for you to effectively plan for the opening of school buildings and offices in the fall,” wrote Mark Cannizzaro, the head of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, to school leaders on Wednesday. “As each day passes without clear guidance and safety assurances, it becomes less likely that we will be ready to reopen in September.”

The letter puts Cannizzaro in line with the city’s teachers union, which has also begun to raise concerns about whether the department is doing enough to ensure the city’s plan to reopen school buildings in September is safe. Michael Mulgrew, head of the teachers union, has repeatedly cast doubt on reopening buildings in September.

“At this moment, the odds are against us in terms of actually getting open safely on time, if at all,” he recently told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.

Many educators have urged the city to rethink whether schools can reopen their doors come September.  Union leaders are trying to balance being responsive to their members’ safety concerns while recognizing that virtual instruction is generally seen as a poor substitute for in-person learning. The growing chorus of critical statements from union leaders could ultimately derail the city’s reopening plans, even as the coronavirus infection rate in New York City remains relatively low. 

Neither union has directly called for the city to delay in-person instruction this fall, and the teachers union has endorsed the city’s hybrid approach, in which students will have the option of attending school in person one to three days a week.

City officials have vowed that they will follow guidance to maintain social distancing, require students and teachers wear masks, adopt a rigorous cleaning regimen, and update school ventilation systems. Key details have still not been released, however, including how the city will respond to infections in school communities, and whether there will be widespread coronavirus testing of students and staff. Even basic issues like how children will maintain distance in bathrooms or how educators will enforce health-related rules remain murky.

Department officials defended their reopening plans.

“Now is not the time to stoke fear and anxiety amongst school leaders and we will continue, in partnership with [the administrators union], to work around the clock to develop guidance that aligns with this evolving health crisis,” Danielle Filson, an education department spokesperson, wrote in an email. She added that department leaders regularly meet with union officials, “engage in follow up conversations, await their sign off on key policies, and collaborate on the timing of announcements.”

Principals are required to choose between models of how often their students are allowed to attend school in person, though Cannizzaro’s letter argues that principals do not have enough information to make that determination. The education department initially asked schools to send their preliminary scheduling decision by Thursday — though schools still don’t know how many families plan to opt into full time remote learning, nor do they know how many teachers are expected to request health accommodations to work remotely. Families have until Aug. 7 to apply for full-time remote learning. Teachers began requesting accommodations on July 15. 

Cannizzaro’s letter says the department will now require schools to provide their scheduling decision by Aug. 14. 

The timeline means that many schools — and families — will not have a firm sense of their schedules until just a couple weeks before students are expected in buildings.

Cannizzaro’s letter also criticized the education department’s management of summer school, which has suffered from technical problems that kept students from accessing their coursework.

Adding to the uncertainty, Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated this week that he would not make a call about reopening schools until just days before the school year is expected to begin on Sept. 10. 

“The final decisions will be made as we get right up to it based on the data we have in front of us,” de Blasio said at a Thursday press conference. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said schools will be allowed to reopen if the local rate of positive coronavirus tests is below 5% — much higher than the city’s current infection rate of about 1-2%. Cuomo is expected to make a decision about whether city schools will be permitted to reopen in the first week of August.

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