School districts slow to follow New York City’s lead on reopening schools

The plan’s “irreplaceable component,” he said, is the city’s so-called situation room, a partnership between the Department of Education, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Test and Trace Corps. The partnership is designed to make for a rapid response to positive Covid-19 cases in public schools and provide a single point-of-contact between schools and agency partners. UFT’s point person on health and safety issues speaks with situation room contacts on a daily basis.

“I would strongly urge any major school system to set up a similar situation room with a strong test-and-trace component,” de Blasio said. “We know wherever there is a case and what action we have to take quickly.”

Another lesson is that data transparency helps counter opposition to in-person instruction, he said. Publishing details on each school and the situation room’s daily indicators have played an important role in driving public confidence in the plan, he said.

“I think data is your friend,” he said. “We know in some parts of the United States, unfortunately they have been data phobic and science phobic and they have very sadly paid the price for that.”

Roughly 700,000 families are fully remote, and those in low-income and communities of color have complained of lack of reliable internet access and WiFi, and about 60,000 families lack devices. The mayor said there have been supply issues and that the city is having to reorder devices.

Black and Asian students are enrolled in in-person learning at smaller percentages, which families and advocates attribute to a lack of trust in the city’s ability to keep schools safe and a lack of communication and engagement.

Once the latest virus surge subsides, it makes sense to bring back students who are younger or that have special needs, as New York City has done, and then add other groups as a vaccine becomes more broadly available, said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who also has been promoting a blueprint for safely reopening schools. New York City also will be a model for other districts in terms of their safeguards and focus on testing, she said in an interview.

The experience in other cities and states has been much different.

In California, a local control approach has meant most of the state’s more than 6 million students are being taught online, as teachers unions across the state fight for better safety measures and money for regular testing. Democrats are increasingly distressed that California’s approach has widened the gap between low-income communities of color and wealthier white families, with one state lawmaker likening the system to “state-sanctioned segregation” and several families suing for “basic educational equality.”

California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas praised Weingarten’s plan for schools but said his state is not there yet.

“We’re processing this all. We need to make sure we get the cases down,” he said. “California is going in the wrong direction to even have this conversation right now.”

Los Angeles County, home to the nation’s second-largest school district, had a seven-day average positivity rate for coronavirus of 10.2 percent compared to 4.94 percent in New York City.

The Florida Education Association bitterly fought Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration’s drive to reopen schools in August, but the state’s largest teachers’ union could do little to stop it in court. An appeals court sided with the Republican governor, ensuring that face-to-face classes would return in Florida.

Districts have reported hundreds of Covid-19 cases — students and staff in Miami-Dade County, the fourth-largest district in the nation, had about 940 cases in the last 30 days alone — yet the state has avoided widespread campus outbreaks and shutdowns.

Chicago Public Schools spokesperson Emily Bolton said in a statement Monday that the district has been in discussions with CTU since school closures began and has worked to ensure schools are safe. “Numerous studies and data from schools in Chicago and throughout the country have shown that classrooms can safely reopen with proper mitigation strategies, and we must open our doors in order to counter the dire educational consequences for students who need support the most,” she said.

Weingarten last week described the situation in Chicago as “completely disrespectful and counterproductive.” While the UFT and de Blasio have had their issues, “they talk to each other all the time,” she said. In Chicago, the Chicago Tribune last week reported that one of Lightfoot’s top aides sent her an email with a bet on how long the union’s strike last year would last, she noted.

“The key to any of these successful reopenings in urban districts, at least, has been this kind of labor-management council that UFT has with the city of New York… It’s the reopening committees that Boston has,” she said. “You need to actually have people talking to each other, sharing the data and solving problems.”

Weingarten said she’s going to use her blueprint to see if she can “create some resets.” She hopes it helps lead to trust and ideas that can be implemented locally for both safety and instruction.

“I don’t care if you hate each other,” she said. “You have to talk to each other if you are being real about caring about children.”

Mackenzie Mays, Andrew Atterbury and Carly Sitrin contributed to this report.

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