As temperatures fell below 40 degrees on Monday, New York City pre-K and elementary public schools began to reopen after two weeks of closure due to COVID-19. Some students and teachers bundled up, knowing they had to brace the frigid conditions in their open-windowed classrooms. Outside air is needed for proper ventilation for many buildings that don’t have capable systems to filter air efficiently for the virus.
Ashley Rodríguez, a bilingual education elementary school teacher, had to layer up before going to school on Monday. “My school is located in a very old building,” Rodríguez said. “We rely heavily on the windows being open to improve our ventilation. Hence, my earlier comment about needing to layer up. The children are very cold, they struggle to wear their masks properly which can be frustrating for them and for us.” In order to comply with regulations, some schools must keep their windows open, despite the Department of Education and New York City attempting to fix ventilation and heating systems. Although the city said most public schools were cleared for ventilation issues in September, educators who regularly saw their old ventilation systems allow dust into classrooms were not convinced at the results. Plus, the city did not offer much explanation for what deemed a building safe or not.
Annie Tan, a special education elementary school teacher, is working remotely now after taking medical accommodation for her asthma which she knew would be exacerbated by the cold air with an open-windowed classroom. “The first week or two a school it was just freezing in my classroom and I couldn't imagine being in there when it was below freezing temperatures outside and that was just 55 degrees, so I'm hearing from colleagues and friends across the city that they're wearing four layers and still freezing in the classrooms,” Tan said. “Another friend told me that her first graders lost use of their hands in her classroom.”
As the pandemic continues to highlight the city’s infrastructure problems, Rodríguez and other teachers grow frustrated, not just with the cold, but with the opening of public schools handled by the DOE and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Originally, de Blasio stated that once the city reached a 3% threshold, public schools would shut down. Schools did shut down, but reopened on Monday after the mayor announced on Nov. 29 that the city would abandon the threshold even though the city-wide rate continues to rise, being above 4.2% on Monday. This was done through collaboration with DOE chancellor Richard Carranza. "Getting our kids back in school buildings is one of the single most important things we can do for their wellbeing, and it’s so important that we do it right," Carranzza said in a statement. "The unparalleled value of in-person learning for students has been evident in the first few months of school, and we will do everything we can to keep our schools safe and keep them open for the duration of this pandemic."
De Blasio reached his decision with consultation of researchleading him to surmise, along with epidemiologists, that since COVID-19 rates were lower in younger students and if contracted children have limited symptoms, it was safer for elementary schools to reopen.But the reopening caused concern among teachers, many of whom in New York are above the age of 40 with many citing confusion on the removal of the threshold, along with growing fear. Additionally, it remains unclear when high schools will reopen, but they will remain closed at least until after schools hold their winter break.
Many wore red and spammed the hashtag #RedforEd across Twitter in solidarity with teachers who had to go into school despite the rising cases. The #RedforEd campaign was largely supported by the MORE-UFT caucus of the United Federation of Teachers, an educator union which represents 200,000 New York City public schools educators. According to Liat Olenick, member of the media committee for the MORE-UFT caucus and an elementary school teacher working remotely due to a medical accommodation, the caucus is against the mayor. “The MORE caucus opposes the mayor's current plan, because MORE is focused both on safety and equity and doesn't believe that what the mayor is doing is safe, or equitable and the UFT appears to be supporting what the mayor is doing,” Olenick said.
MORE-UFT believes schools should function primarily remotely, but with the exception that students who are in need of in-person learning like homeless, special education or disabled students who are offered five day a week in person options in recreation centers. “That's always been a component of what we've been advocating for because we know there are some students in our system that need that support way more than others,” Olenick said. “And part of what we are really frustrated by in the mayor's plan is he's essentially rationing in person learning, but he's doing it in a way that is random and that privileges families who have the most resources instead of having it be targeted and serve the families who have the least resources.”
Olenick went on to say that the United Federation of Teachers has not truly allowed for the inclusion of teachers' voices and has lacked democratic processes and transparency. The UFT posted a statement on Twitter following the mayor’s announcement. “The mayor's reopening plan will enable our most vulnerable students to receive in-person instruction as early as Dec. 7 in parts of the city where transmission rates remain low,” the post reads. “At our insistence, much stricter testing measures will be in place in all schools.” This stricter testing comes in the form of mandatory testing for 20% of students and staff that attend in-person classes.
Tan, also a member of the MORE-UFT Caucus’ media committee, is not convinced that schools are safe. Plus, Tan said teachers have not felt represented by their union. “ I wonder if teachers will finally have a say in any of this, we honestly haven't had a say in any of this and UFC has run this through and pushed this down our throats, without considering members' needs at all,” Tan said. “And I'm really concerned about demoralization and burnout. I think a lot of fellow educators today were really, really demoralized.”
Rodríguez said that the administration surrounding COVID-19 in public schools has been inconsistent. With a delayed start in September and a “daunting” hybrid mode, Rodríguez’s school was not provided with additional staff despite the City promising that. Rodríguez and her colleagues have added on extra hours of work and her school’s closures have been frustrating for teachers and families. She also noted that her and her colleagues have not felt heard by the administration instilling these rules. Rather, they’ve been left on the back-burner. “While my school’s administration has been very supportive of my thoughts and feelings, the broader UFT and DOE leadership seem to be attending to the needs of one community in particular: white, upper middle class, parents,” Rodríguez said. “That demographic obviously does not represent the DOE as a whole. And I fear that the voices of both those who hold a different opinion from those influential parents, as well as those who comprise the nearly 70% of students who chose remote learning have been drowned out.”
Naomi Peña, president of District 1’s Community Education Council and a parent of elementary-aged children, said that well over 700,000 families in the city opted to learn from home, despite the virus. “A lot of us are not people with privilege,” Peña said. “We don't have nannies, we don't have support that can help us while we're home. It's on us. And the vast majority of families of color are economically challenged, or disenfranchised, and I think it speaks volumes that these families are willing to stay home for their kids' safety, with little supports just to keep people alive.” Peña’s anecdotes match reports of more white children being sent to school than Black children, highlighting disparities associated with races.
Peña, along with the MORE caucus, believes that the city needs to expand upon resources for disadvantaged communities through an expansion of recreation centers. “We're saying shut down the system and have a phased in approach,” Peña said. “And one of them is expanding on rec centers, but truly expanding our rec centers or creating our learning bridges wherever you want to call it, but really a place where students can learn, and students that really need it can be there right now students with their own temporary housing are not in school.”
Peña noted that she and other parents have been sympathetic towards the needs and situations of teachers, despite some saying parents and teachers are divided on the issue of learning mode for students. “There's a lot of knowledge out there that it's parents against teachers which is not true,” Peña said. “Our teachers are an extension of our village. I've always said this and I appreciate the teachers that I have, I know they're dealing with my children much longer during the week than I am in a classroom setting. I also take into consideration their circumstances.” Rodríguez ended up in the emergency room after contracting the virus in the spring, along with other colleagues. She said the fear among children and teachers alike of getting and spreading the virus is real and frightening. “I feel afraid of contracting or spreading the virus when I enter my school building,” Rodríguez said. “I feel afraid for my colleagues, students, and their families, many of whom are people of color and have been disproportionately affected by the virus in their communities. I also feel like I have very little choice in this political climate.”
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