A survey of parents indicates that more than 700,000 New York City public school students may start the school year with some in-person instruction, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday.
The survey, which officially closed last Friday, resulted in only 26% of children—or 264,000 students—of the country's largest school district electing for online learning only. Given the design of the survey—those who did not fill out the online form were by default registered for the school's hybrid program—as well as the deadline which families may have missed, the numbers may be over-counting those who are truly planning to show up for in-person learning.
Families may also change their minds. Those in the hybrid program can elect online learning at any point during the school year, meaning that the final numbers could change as the first day of school approaches. But after Friday, those that selected online but want a hybrid program instead can only make the switch during certain designated times during the school year. The city has not yet said when those periods will be.
The Department of Education, which has yet to release the full results of the survey, is also counting 1 million total students for the upcoming school year, about 2,200 fewer than the number enrolled last year. The count does not include charter school students.
Despite all of these caveats, during a press conference on Monday, Mayor Blasio sought to portray the results as confirmation that the city's parents are overwhelmingly in favor of sending their children back to school, even as school districts across the country have either decided to go to a full online learning plan or have been forced to close due to new coronavirus outbreaks.
Once the epicenter of the pandemic, New York City now has among the lowest infection levels in America and will be a closely watched experiment in whether large school systems can reopen safely and with minimal outbreaks.
"We’re different and we’re ready," de Blasio said.
Under the city's plan, schools would not reopen if the city's positivity rate for coronavirus tests soars above 3%. The positivity rate has been under 2.3% for two months.
In what appeared to be an encouraging sign, Richard Carranza, the city's schools chancellor, who joined the mayor at the press conference, said 85% of teachers—11,500—have signed up to teach in the hybrid plan, which could consist of as many as three days of classroom learning a week. Some teachers' union members have expressed concern about the safety of schools, many of which are overcrowded and have outdated ventilation systems.
The remainder have requested for exemptions to teach at home, according to Carranza.
"Our vision for the fall is a safe, strong, supportive learning environment," Carranza said.
But several teachers later said they were not given a choice. According to the teachers' union website, individuals can apply to work remotely only if they meet guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approval is not guaranteed.
As one example, P.S. 321, an elementary school in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, performed an internal survey and found that 88% of all staff said they preferred to start the school year remotely, while 93% of classroom teachers said they wanted to start the year remotely.
A host of questions still remain about how the city's cash-strapped school system would be able to execute its school reopening plan, which calls for random temperature checks, mask wearing, social distancing precautions and a test and trace program in the event of an outbreak. Just two confirmed cases in different classrooms will be sufficient to shut down a school for at least 24 hours.
Asked about whether the city could upgrade older ventilation systems by the first day of school, Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor's senior adviser for public health, downplayed its importance, suggesting that fresh air could easily be obtained by opening windows.
"All of these measures should be added on top of each other," he said. "Ventilation is one piece, an important piece, but not the only piece."
Mayor de Blasio said any classroom or school that the city did not judge as ready to be reopened will stay closed.
But he added, "Overall, I think we're going to be ready."
The mayor also said that students enrolled in the hybrid program could learn their precise schedules as early as next Monday, allowing working parents to plan their own schedules and possibly return to the workplace on some days.
In a tweet, Brooklyn Councilmember Mark Treyger, who chairs the education committee, noted how the survey's rules favor the hybrid plan and suggested that many parents might be hedging their bets and wind up opting out before the first day of school.
In a phone interview with Gothamist, he said he spent the morning at food distribution centers in Coney Island and Bath Beach, where parents told him exactly that.
"The survey structure clearly shaped a desired outcome of City Hall," Treyger said.
A former teacher, he said he believed the survey results reflected parents "trying to maximize flexibility."
Treyger also said that while the city released data on the number of teachers seeking health exemptions, they have not yet revealed the number of other school staff, including paraprofessionals, parent coordinators and counselors, that have also sought permission to teach remotely.
On top of that, he argued that school janitors are woefully underprepared to perform the sanitizing routines the city has outlined, especially without any additional funding from either the state or federal government.
"If you give schools the required resources, I think there is a path for a phased in reopening," he said. "Right now they don't have money and they don't have the time."
Treyger, who has proposed his own plan calling for a phased reopening that begins with the youngest and most vulnerable students, said the mayor's insistence on reopening amounted to political brinksmanship between himself and Governor Andrew Cuomo. Since the crisis began, the two have sparred over control of the city and its recovery.
Cuomo last week gave all school districts in New York the green light to reopen as long as they submit a plan to the state that meets safety requirements.
He did, however, stipulate that each district will be required to hold at least three town hall sessions with parents and school members before August 21st. The state’s five largest districts, including New York City, must conduct at least five meetings.
In the wake of the crisis, Cuomo insisted that only he has the power to reopen schools. But asked during a conference call with reporters on Monday, he suggested the decision was up to local stakeholders.
Parents and teachers, he said, would be the "ultimate arbiter" of a plan.
"If the parents of New York City and the teachers of New York City say it is a safe plan, then it is a safe plan," he said.