Some New York City teachers question timing of reopening schools as COVID-19 cases soar

By Gabriella Borter and Nathan Layne
·4 min read

By Gabriella Borter and Nathan Layne

(Reuters) - Jamie Ewing longs for the day when he can return to teaching his fourth-grade class face-to-face, safely and permanently - but he is not confident that will be the case next week when he is due to go back to his school in the South Bronx.

Ewing's school is among hundreds of pre-kindergarten and elementary schools in New York City that Mayor Bill de Blasio said can return to the classroom for in-person learning on Monday after an abrupt shutdown of all city schools two weeks ago due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Next week's reopenings are an about-face from the initial plan to keep schools closed if the city's positive COVID-19 test rate exceeded 3%. With the citywide seven-day average hovering at 4.8% as of Wednesday, Ewing and other teachers are concerned about the sudden shift by de Blasio just as a second wave of infections threatens the country's most populous city.

"I don’t want us to open, be back for a week and then shut it down again. We can’t do that to our kids," Ewing, 55, said in a telephone interview. "They get excited, they get back, they get into a routine and then we’ll yank the rug out from under them again."

To be sure, Ewing and some of his colleagues appreciate de Blasio's efforts to get young students back in the classroom first and prefer not having the 3% benchmark for school closings.

"The fact that the city is taking a more nuanced approach and moving away from the hard-and-fast 3 percent is good because it will at least get a few more kids back" into the classroom, said Brian Oestreich, a social worker at a Brooklyn high school.

Even so, de Blasio's seemingly spontaneous change of plan, announced on a Sunday just before an anticipated post-Thanksgiving acceleration in new COVID-19 cases, may have undermined faith in the city's leadership on education, teachers said.

After the closure two weeks ago, "the mayor didn't have clarity on how he would reopen schools in the first place," said Annie Tan, a 31-year-old fifth-grade special education teacher in Brooklyn. "I think that's a huge reason people are really angry about this now."

During the summer, de Blasio fought hard to reopen classrooms. In contrast to other big-city districts that opened with online instruction only, de Blasio and the city's teachers union eventually agreed to a hybrid plan that blended online and in-class instruction. Under that agreement, classrooms would close if the city hit the 3% seven-day positive test rate.

When the rate topped that benchmark a week before last Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday and the city closed schools, de Blasio was criticized for disrupting the lives of students and parents while restaurants and bars were permitted to operate.

When he announced on Nov. 19 that schools needed to close, he had not yet established what standards would need to be met for them to reopen.

"Sometimes it is hard to imagine the next phase until you get there. You do your damnedest to plan ahead but you can't always do that," he told reporters at the time.

Representatives of the mayor's office and the Board of Education did not immediately return a request for comment on Wednesday.

On Sunday, the mayor announced a change in tack: the city would scrap the 3% benchmark because new research showed that young children appear to be less vulnerable to COVID-19 than the general population.

Schools will still be subject to closure by the state if their local communities experience high rates of infection.

The city's new plan allows in-person learning five days a week where possible, for the first time since the pandemic struck the city.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the union supported the new plan so long as "stringent testing was in place."

Students returning to school must have a signed consent form agreeing to coronavirus testing or a letter of medical exemption from a doctor. Tests will be conducted in schools on a weekly, not monthly, basis. Only about a fifth of students will be tested in a given week.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the city has doubled in three weeks, New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said on Tuesday. Health experts say the surge is expected to worsen as people who celebrated Thanksgiving outside their households start to show symptoms - just before young students and their teachers head back to school.

"I think it's really misguided to think that we can reopen a week after Thanksgiving," said Tan, the special education teacher. "It all really goes back to the mayor and his lack of planning."

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Nathan Layne; additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Jonathan Oatis)