How a staffing crunch months in the making threw NYC’s school reopening plans into chaos

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, center, and Mayor Bill de Blasio

New York City’s school reopening plans are still missing a key ingredient: enough teachers. 

A staffing crunch has forced the country’s largest school system to delay reopening school buildings for the second time. Estimates are that the city needs thousands more teachers — it’s not clear how many — to fill virtual and in-person classrooms. 

The problem was brewing for months, with plenty of warnings from principals and experts. In the end, similar to previous big decisions, Mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly brushed off concerns until the last minute, further eroding the public’s trust in his reopening strategy. 

Now, principals and teachers say they’ve lost precious time that could have been devoted to improving instruction for a year unlike any other, and it’s unclear whether another delay will even solve the staffing conundrum. 

Just two school days before buildings were set to reopen, de Blasio announced Thursday the city would instead pivot to a phased-in approach. Now, pre-K students and those with significant disabilities will be the first to return to classrooms on Sept. 21. Elementary school buildings open on Sept. 29, and middle and high schools two days later on Oct. 1. Full-day remote learning will start for all students this Monday.

In his push to make in-person learning work, the mayor wound up undermining his central goal: getting students back into school buildings. Here’s why.

New York City is going back to school with a hybrid schedule.

De Blasio has insisted that schools reopen for in-person instruction, with good reason. Coronavirus infection rates are among the lowest in the country, hovering around 1% in recent weeks, and many public health experts say that low community spread is key for returning to schools. Plus, stacks of evidence show that remote learning is a poor substitute for classroom instruction, often leaving behind students who already face the greatest disadvantages.

To head back to school, the mayor settled on a hybrid model with students attending socially distanced classes at least once a week, and learning online the rest of the time. Families can also opt for remote-only learning at any time — something that 42% of students have already chosen. 

A hybrid approach is inherently complicated, creating different groups of students who need to be taught at the same time: some in the classroom, some online part-time, and others learning virtually all of the time.

That is layered on top of social distancing rules, which means teachers who might have been assigned a class of 25 children can now teach only a fraction of students inside the building. There could be as few as nine children in a room, depending on the size of the space.

Additionally, the city has granted medical accommodations for 21% of teachers — so far — to work from home because they’re at high risk for complications from COVID-19. Others can take family leave to take care of loved ones. 

Districts across the country have run into this very staffing problem: Schools need at least the same number of teachers in their buildings, but they have fewer teachers on hand because of health accommodations. On top of that, they’re teaching only a fraction of their normal students at a time because of social distancing rules. It adds up to a thorny math problem about how teachers can cover remote and in-person students simultaneously.

One of the largest cities in New Jersey pulled the plug on a hybrid model because there weren’t enough teachers. In Colorado and elsewhere in the country, teachers in the classroom are also live streaming their lessons to students learning from home. 

Union demands make the hybrid model even more complicated.

In New York City, the staffing challenge is compounded by a deal struck between city officials and the teachers union discouraging teachers with in-person classes from also being assigned virtual classes. When the mayor announced that deal in late August, schools suddenly had to find one group of teachers for students learning in person, a second group to teach hybrid students on the days those students learn remotely, and a third to teach those who opted for fully remote learning. 

From the union’s perspective, that arrangement achieved an important goal. It prevented educators from being forced to dramatically expand their work day by teaching a full day of students in-person and then providing virtual lessons after that — or even trying to teach in-person and virtual students simultaneously. 

The agreement offers some wiggle room as teachers are allowed to teach a combination of in-person and remote classes as long as their overall workload doesn’t increase.

But in practice, it created another impossible logistical problem for school principals. The teachers union says its members have filed 900 complaints in the sprint to reopen, with the most common being staffing issues, particularly with the hybrid model.

Schools simply didn’t have enough staff to assign completely different teachers to each group of students. On top of that, school leaders were told about the deal about two weeks before they were set to welcome students back to school — forcing them to either bend the rules and risk objections from union officials, or scrap their plans and start over.

“We’ve been demanding guidance such as this for months — months — with no response,” Nancy Harris, principal of the Spruce Street School in Manhattan, said at the time. “It’s like a backwards system, and I’m constantly redoing things.”

How many more teachers are needed? And will a delay buy enough time to fill the gaps?

The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, or CSA, which represents principals and other school leaders, has estimated that another 10,000 teachers are needed. A rough calculation released Thursday from the city’s Independent Budget Office put the number at 11,900. The education department and the mayor have said those numbers were exaggerated, but have not provided their own tally of staffing requests they’ve received from schools. 

De Blasio pledged Thursday to fill staffing gaps by deploying 4,500 educators — including education department staffers with teaching licenses, substitutes, adjunct professors, and aspiring teachers pursuing education degrees. That number will only get the city through its first phase of reopening, said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the CSA. 

“My folks continued to tell me that they still don’t have the staffing that they need, to me that was the big red flag,” he said at a press conference Thursday. “If we have students entering buildings without a teacher, that is simply not going to work.”

The true staffing needs across the city could dwindle if the number of families opting for fully remote learning keeps climbing as it has through this unpredictable summer. Families can switch to all-remote learning at any point, or choose to head back to school buildings on a quarterly basis — so schools may be grappling with staffing puzzles all year long.

Staffing problems were evident from the start.

Education department officials acknowledged the agreement with the teachers union posed enormous practical questions, but never said how they expected to make the equation work. 

“Staffing has been and will continue to be something that we are monitoring closely,” said Linda Chen, the education department’s chief academic officer, when pressed on the issue last month. “The math would indicate to you that is going to be a variable we need to solve for.”

The union also admitted as much in a statement announcing the deal. 

“Even with this approach, many schools will still face a staffing shortage, which the system will have to address,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said. 

Teachers union officials did not directly say how schools were supposed to comply with the deal they helped create and which seemed mathematically impossible to implement. In a statement to Chalkbeat, they emphasized that social distancing rules also play a major role.

“Given the demands of social distancing in the schools and the requirements that City Hall and the DOE had placed on the system, it was inevitable that more teachers would have to be hired,” Michael Sill, the union’s personnel director, wrote in a statement. “Principals agreed and asked for additional staff. Through their union’s advocacy and ours, that is happening.”

One of the city’s answers: do less live teaching.

In an attempt to relieve pressure on schools, city officials have relaxed the amount of live teaching required for students who split their time between in-person and virtual learning. In theory, that means students might only interact with a teacher one day a week while schools scramble to add more staff. (Fully remote students will have daily live lessons.)

Students were originally slated to receive 65–120 minutes of live instruction daily, depending on the grade level, according to guidelines released to schools late last month. Now, the education department says that schools will be allowed to “ramp up” to meet those guidelines throughout the fall.

The last-minute changes and scramble to find teachers raise questions about the quality of instruction this year.

New York City public school students should have been learning for two weeks by now. Buildings were supposed to open to students on Sept. 10. Instead, the mayor announced a delay as the city wanted to give schools more time to prepare and address additional health and safety concerns. 

This week, students began virtual orientation to get to know their teachers and figure out all their logins. Meanwhile, some charter schools have been teaching fully remote classes for weeks already.  

District school principals and teachers have been caught up in the ever-changing mandates and complicated logistics of reopening. They’ve been scrambling to meet the deadlines in front of them, which have changed again and again. That often has left them little time to dedicate to the primary work of schools: thoughtful planning around teaching and learning. 

Even before the delays, school leaders knew that the majority of instruction would be online, with in-person classes offered as little as one day a week in some cases. Educators have said they’ve been largely left on their own to improve their online classrooms, without much sharing of best practices. 

While the union has been outspoken about staffing and safety concerns, officials have been relatively quiet about calling for more tools to improve remote teaching.

“We have a great deal of evidence that the union is committed to the health and safety of its teachers,” said Tom Liam Lynch, editor of the website InsideSchools. “We don’t have much evidence at all that the union is committed to high quality online learning and teaching for 1 million students.”

Even if the city manages to hire enough teachers, it remains to be seen how effective they all will be in brand-new schools, with little time to plan. It could also be disruptive for students who could presumably be suddenly switched to a brand new classroom teacher.

“The notion of hiring all these people who don’t know our students and school and pretending that a body is the same thing as a teacher is preposterous and insulting,” said one Brooklyn high school principal who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely. “For me, it accomplishes absolutely nothing.”

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