By Karen Matthews and Jennifer Peltz
New York City delayed the start of its school year by several days to give teachers more time to prepare for having students back in classrooms amid the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday.
In a deal struck with unions representing teachers, staff, and administrators, instruction that was supposed to begin on Sept. 10 will be delayed until Sept. 16. All students will spend the first few days learning from home, by computer, before in-person instruction begins for some students Sept. 21.
"A lot was on the line here to work through. But I'm pleased to report that we've come to an agreement to move forward, to address real concerns that have been raised bout how to do things the right way, how to do them the safe, healthy way, how to make sure people are prepared for the school year under absolutely unprecedented conditions," de Blasio said.
Among the other safety measures being instituted will be a medical monitoring program that includes random virus testing for a sampling of both students and staff each month.
De Blasio was joined at a news conference Tuesday by union leaders who said they do believe the city can welcome students back safely, they just need more time to get ready for their arrival.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the union's independent medical experts had signed off on the reopening plan.
"We can now say that New York City's public school system has the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in the United States of America," he said.
The development comes after the mayor, a Democrat, emphasized for months that the city's pandemic recovery depends on getting 1.1 million public school students back in classrooms in person after the coronavirus abruptly forced a thorny plunge into remote learning in March.
Even as other big U.S. school systems — including Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Houston — decided to start the school year with students learning remotely, de Blasio stuck with a plan for a hybrid reopening that was intended to feature as much classroom time as possible while still allowing for social distancing.
New York suffered the deadliest coronavirus spike in the country before getting the virus' spread in check late in spring, even as it climbed anew in many other parts of the country.
The city's plan to restart schools includes mask-wearing, staggered schedules to reduce the number of students in rooms, supplying every school building with a nurse, and asking all staffers to get tested shortly before school starts. The city dispatched ventilation experts to check out air flow in classrooms, and officials said they would work to make parks and streets available as teaching space if principals were interested.
The virus testing program is something the teachers' unions had pushed for. Details on the plan will vary by school, but parental consent will be required for children to participate. Kids will be given a more gentle swab test, rather than the more uncomfortable nasal passage test.
Tuesday's deal to delay the start of class was announced ahead of a planned afternoon meeting by delegates of the United Federation of Teachers, which was poised to vote on whether to authorize a strike.
New York state bars teachers and other public employees from striking; unions can be fined if they do.
New York City students had their last day of in-class instruction on March 13. All schools statewide were closed by March 18.
During the summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state would allow a return to in-person school in regions where fewer than 5% of people tested for COVID-19 came back positive.
The entire state has been well under that threshold all summer.
The Democratic governor last month cleared schools to open around the state while cautioning that they still needed to address parents' and teachers' safety concerns.