Lessons From New York City’s School-Reopening Fiasco

Laveta Brigham

(Bloomberg Opinion) — New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, and the largest public school district planning to begin at least some in-person instruction, has botched its reopening plans for the fall. Its mistakes are a cautionary tale for school systems across the U.S. that are […]

(Bloomberg Opinion) — New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, and the largest public school district planning to begin at least some in-person instruction, has botched its reopening plans for the fall. Its mistakes are a cautionary tale for school systems across the U.S. that are struggling to balance the benefits of resuming their educational programs against the risks of spreading Covid-19.

Piecemeal planning and poor communication by the New York City education department prompted pleas from dozens of principals, districts and community councils to push back the opening date, and, finally, provoked the threat of a teachers’ strike. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers eventually agreed to a delayed reopening, buying teachers about a week of planning time for what in most schools will be a mix of in-person and online education.

New York’s size and density make its challenges unusual, but the city’s experience, including a smattering of promising local strategies, remains relevant to districts nationwide. While 73 percent of districts, including Los Angeles and Chicago, are starting the fall semester fully online, the needs of working parents and children — especially the youngest and neediest — are likely to ratchet up pressure to move to in-person instruction. However careful the planning, the pandemic is likely to make the coming year a roller-coaster of shifting and costly protocols, Covid scares and quarantines.

If New York is any guide, these realities will require changes in the relationship between district bureaucracies and individual schools. First, variation among schools, especially among those with different physical infrastructures (including schools with no classroom windows), means that districts cannot rely on a single approach.

Individual schools will need flexibility to determine what works for them, which means that central administrators should focus on providing support instead of enforcing rules. They’ll need to help close streets and requisition tents for outdoor instruction and offer expertise needed to ensure safe ventilation systems, as well as meals and online technology. 

Finally, to succeed during what is both a public health and financial crisis, districts need to foster trust, which is in short supply. New York City lost credibility when it failed to close schools at the start of the pandemic in March or to act decisively and transparently when teachers became sick, contributing to the deaths of 74 staffers.

The city’s progressive public schools, which have long benefitted from relatively collaborative cultures, illustrate the need for maximum flexibility and trust. At the NYC iSchool in lower Manhattan, a small high school that emphasizes technology-enhanced instruction, the transition to online learning has been relatively seamless. When the school shut down last spring, almost all classes were already using Google classroom, a web-based platform that lets teachers adapt popular Google apps for educational use, and students and teachers were communicating via email. The principal focused on preparing for online instruction in the fall, and one teacher took the lead organizing two-hour “technology Tuesdays,” so that teachers with expertise in programs such as DeltaMath and Edpuzzle could teach their colleagues.

NYC iSchool has been holding online town halls with the principal, teachers and custodians providing information for families. When schools “leave parents and students in the dark, it creates uneasiness and anxiety heading into the new school year,” said Arnold Kim, an iSchool math and science teacher.

Because one-third of iSchool teachers have won accommodations allowing them to work from home, most instruction will be online. Students who choose to come to school, about half of the total, will be working in socially-distanced classrooms.

Castle Bridge, in upper Manhattan, is another collaborative small school, but one with different challenges. As a dual-language elementary school, Castle Bridge already has two teachers in every classroom; so teacher teams will be able to divvy up responsibilities. Teachers there also worked during the summer — like those at iSchool, with little extra compensation — to develop online systems that could be used in all grades to make it easier for parents to help their children with schoolwork. (By contrast, in schools where teachers often are responsible for 30 students or more, a requirement put in place to provide one teacher per about 10 students during the pandemic poses an unfunded logistical nightmare.)

While in-school collaboration has helped individual schools, principals have been hamstrung by central bureaucracies. “The biggest problem we have here is leadership or a lack thereof,” said Julie Zuckerman, the founding principal of Castle Bridge.

Principals pleaded for the education department to close streets to make outdoor space available as early as May, but didn’t get a go-ahead from the mayor until late August. That’s left principals scrambling. Tents should have been requisitioned from the fire and police departments by the mayor. Although Castle Bridge recently received one electrostatic cleaner, it came with toxic cleaning cartridges that had to be returned. Meanwhile, principals are responsible for signing off on building ventilation systems, a job for which many say they are unqualified.  

As the semester gets underway, school districts will face new challenges that will require administrative foresight. Principals worry that a spike in subway ridership following Labor Day will lead to a rise in Covid-19 cases, yet the administration has yet to establish relatively easy fixes, such as starting school after rush hour.

Finally, most states have woefully inadequate emergency plans that they will need to update. That, in turn, will require funding, a chronic problem nationwide.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of “After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform.”

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