A pedestrian wears a face mask while standing outside the High School of Economics & Finance closed due to coronavirus concerns, Monday, March 16, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
May 10, 2020
Coronavirus has forced New York City teachers to fundamentally change how they educate students. Now they're fighting for their own vision of how and when schools should reopen.
When Mayor Bill de Blasio shuttered New York City public schools on March 16, there was no plan in place for how the district's 1,800 schools would transition into remote learning.
That task fell largely on teachers, who over the past seven weeks have faced the biggest challenge of their professional lives.
"There's so much new information all the time, it still feels like week two. At the same, it feels like week 976," said Ricardo Colon, an instructional coach at PS/IS 30 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Colon, who works with other teachers to develop their professional skills, explained that remote education has presented significant challenges, as well as opportunities.
"I've seen the ingenuity and creativity of teachers really blossom in creating a remote learning system that doesn't just present an assignment, but really takes into account pedagogy," he said.
The next challenge that may end up falling on teachers' shoulders is the massive logistical undertaking of reopening.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio said in April that schools will remain closed through the rest of the academic year, but as summer rapidly approaches and calls to reopen the economy grow, teachers are stepping up to pitch their own plans for how a future reopening should be handled.
"We have to start planning. We can't wait for people to realize how big this challenge is going to be for us as educators," said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union which represents New York City teachers.
For the last three weeks, the teachers union has been in close talks with the principals union and the New York City Department of Education to develop a plan that ensures both student and teacher safety. He expects it will be finished by June but will begin sharing information about the plan before then.
More than 100,000 public school teachers in the district have signed a petition calling for widespread COVID-19 testing, temperature screenings for students and teachers, rigorous cleaning protocols, and a tracing procedure for tracking those who may have come in contact with the virus.
"If there aren't protocols in place, if there aren't procedures and guidelines that are strictly followed, this simple, everyday thing that we've been doing for however many years is absolutely going to cause a huge outbreak," said Mindy Rosier-Rayburn, a special education teacher at Mickey Mantle School in Harlem.
Another challenge facing the district is developing a plan that allows schools to follow social distancing guidelines across thousands of buildings with very different physical layouts.
"A school literally is a large social gathering on a daily basis," Mulgrew said. "I think a lot of elected officials just realized that in the last week or two."
Getting an entire student body into a school on a given day will probably be impossible, Mulgrew added.
Besides a regular regimen of deep cleanings and potentially screening students and teachers before they enter the building, another option under consideration is introducing a hybrid learning model that mixes classroom learning with remote learning.
"We're going to have to do some very challenging and creative programming to make sure the school has the ability to do all the social distancing guidelines," Mulgrew said.
Teachers are bracing for this reality as well. While remote learning is not ideal, Colon said, the last month-and-a-half has been a crash course in how to improve the process.
"When we first started, a lot of it was naturally going to be on our shoulders because of the thrust into remote education," he said. "But what they've come up with is incredible."
That doesn't mean teachers aren't eager to get back into the classroom. On Tuesday, Cuomo drew criticism from teachers when he suggested that the "old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom" might not be necessary with technology.
"Remote learning is better than nothing, and I hate to say it that way, but my kids and all kids benefit from in-person instruction," said Rosier-Rayburn.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents 67,000 doctors, released a letter on May 5 with recommendations for schools that also calls for a staggered or "phased" approach to reopening.
"Establishing options for a phased re-opening, such as by beginning with reduced hours or certain classes/grades that will allow for monitoring the impact on the epidemiology of the outbreak at a local level before full re-opening," the letter said.
What do state officials think about this approach?
Additional guidance is forthcoming, according to Cuomo, but his latest announcements on who will lead the planning effort have worried union officials and teachers alike.
He said on Tuesday that Google CEO Eric Schmidt and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would lead separate efforts to "reimagine" education in New York, including the question of when and how to reopen schools.
"The state will bring together a group of leaders to answer these questions in collaboration with the Gates Foundation, who will support New York State by helping bring together national and international experts, as well as provide expert advice as needed," Cuomo said.
The statement has drawn criticism from teachers, some of whom are calling for more engagement with those on the ground.
"Cuomo's taskforce right now has no teachers, no educators, no one who is actually working with the kids," Rosier-Rayburn said. "That needs to change."