Teachers, parents and children march in Brooklyn to protest the reopening of city public schools amid the threat of a teachers strike. MARK LENNIHAN/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK
New York City should expect to see an uptick in COVID-19 cases once public schools reopen for in-person classes later this month, an infectious disease expert and advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio testified at a City Council hearing on Thursday.
Dr. Irwin Redlener was among the 140 speakers scheduled to testify at the day-long education committee hearing on the city's school reopening plan. In the absence of testimony from DOE officials, councilmembers heard from skeptics of de Blasio's school reopening plan, along with the school labor union leaders who convinced the mayor to delay reopening to allow more time to prepare.
Redlener warned councilmembers that students enrolled in schools for in-person learning have a greater chance of contracting the disease when inside a classroom.
“I’m pretty certain that we’re going to see a resurgence. There’s too many factors that we cannot control,” Redlener said, adding that the current reopening of colleges where cases have surfaced coupled with the upcoming Labor Day weekend, when New Yorkers typically travel outside the state, could contribute to an uptick. "It's going to spread and the schools are not as ready as they could or should be."
Redlener urged the city Department of Education to expand the criteria for Reasonable Accommodation Requests, the exemptions that allow teachers to instruct students from home. Several educators are taking the city to court in an attempt to keep teaching completely remote during the pandemic.
The hearing came two days after the city announced a delay in the reopening of public schools following weeks of pushback by the United Federation of Teachers union, which raised the possibility of a strike last week. UFT president Michael Mulgrew told committee members he signed off on the DOE's plan after receiving assurances that a randomized testing protocol will be set up for each school. Mulgrew also said he was reassured by de Blasio's commitment to double down on resources to neighborhoods that saw noticeable upticks. This includes additional rapid testing sites.
Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park, a largely immigrant community that saw spikes in COVID cases last month, said he's worried the city's testing sites are unable to protect immigrants from Immigration Customs Enforcement.
"The Sunset Park situation: there was an ICE raid that happened right before the spike went up that caused a lot of folks to step back and not engage," said Menchaca, referring to agents visiting a residence in the neighborhood two weeks ago. No arrests were made.
Mulgrew did warn that if the UFT determines a school is under-resourced, the union will order its lawyers to go to court to ask for a temporary restraining order against the DOE to keep the school closed.
De Blasio originally sought to reopen schools on September 10th, in accordance with an informal policy that sees schools reopen the Thursday after Labor Day, but changed it to September 21st to allow for more remote training while also ensuring school buildings are safe to re-enter. That includes conducting ventilation testing in school buildings by teams of engineers monitoring airflow.
At one point during the hearing, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified that despite $12 million in funding she allocated for upgrades to ventilation systems in schools in Manhattan, that money hasn't been spent, despite officials saying the city’s broke.
Councilmembers also sought details regarding the city's Learning Bridges daycare program, which will offer remote learning and supervision for some 100,000 children from 3 years old through 8th grade, while their parents are working.
"Have you guys heard anything from your members who have their own elementary-age school kids?" Councilmember Brad Lander asked Mulgrew. "What are they doing? How are they going to be able to show up and teach if they don't have childcare?"
"Haven't heard a word about it since the announcement," said Mulgrew. "We keep asking and we get, 'Oh yeah, we're coming out with it.'"
Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators union, representing principals, said principals have received calls to review space capacity for the Learning Bridges program.
"They reach out to schools thinking they've identified space, but not understanding that most of the principals have used all of their space available for social distancing in this age of COVID," said Cannizzaro.
Sophie Xu, a high school student, testified that nothing would be lost by staying fully remote.
"For every single excuse [given] to reopen, such as the need to combat food insecurity throughout schools, there are healing-based alternatives that do not risk exposure to the virus," said Xu. "One: reach out to under-heard communities in their desired languages to identify educational barriers they've been facing since COVID started. Two: remove blended learning as an option, instead make remote learning more equitable. Three: expand resources such as regional enrichment centers. And last but not least reopen schools only when they have fully met all of the safety and health guidelines, regardless of when that time comes."
William Diep, a high school student in Brooklyn, criticized the de Blasio administration for failing to adequately provide answers to pressing questions he and his fellow students have raised.
"My school is not ready to reopen, we do not have the proper ventilation system, our school population increases every year. And we're not prepared for this upcoming school year. And I think that every other school is not ready to do so either," said Diep. "This is coming from a student who did, in fact, struggle with online learning, and was able to be privileged to have the choice between remote learning and the hybrid learning system."
Because the emergency hearing was technically to consider a resolution declaring schools remain unsafe to reopen, it did not obligate the city officials, including de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, to appear and testify. As a result, Councilmember Ben Kallos mockingly marked them down as "absent."
"They're getting an 'F' in today's pop quiz," said Kallos. "And that's just putting it lightly."
Miranda Barbot, a DOE spokesperson, said in a statement, “The resolution was primarily to push back the first day of school, which we already announced earlier this week. We will testify later this month.“