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'Monumental' task remains as NYC delays opening schools, leaders say

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fernandogarciaesteban/iStockBY: MEREDITH DELISO, ABC NEWS

(NEW YORK) — Families and educators pushing for a delay to the start of the New York City school year breathed a sigh of relief this week, as city officials announced in-person learning is postponed. But for some, the relief was temporary.

With a majority of the district’s 1.1 million students planning to return to buildings during the coronavirus pandemic, city officials have acknowledged the task is no easy one, and questions on details remain, leaders say.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the start of in-person learning in New York City public schools had been delayed to Sept. 21 to give schools more time to get staff trained in health and safety protocols and prepare for both remote and blended learning. The district’s blended-learning plan was initially set to begin on Sept. 10.

The move followed weeks of campaigns from unions, administrators, community leaders, medical professionals and teachers urging the city to postpone in-person learning amid concerns about reopening safely. The United Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union, was set to vote on a strike authorization hours before de Blasio’s announcement.

“Teachers, who usually get two days of professional development at the beginning of the school year, will now get nine,” schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said Tuesday. “We’ve heard from everyone in our schools that have said we need some more time.”

While acknowledging a victory, some officials outlined the work that lies ahead. New York City Councilman Brad Lander said on social media he was “relieved” about the delay. “Now we need to double-down and use the time to insist on real progress on what needs to happen to make schools safe for learning,” he said, including details such as testing protocols, ventilation inspections and staffing shortages.

“The City still needs to use the delay to inspect every building, get nurses & PPE & testing in every school, roll out childcare plans, and support schools to implement outdoor learning,” he added.

For Cathy Grodsky, president of the District 26 Presidents’ Council, an organization of the Queens district’s PTA presidents, there’s one “basic question” of which many parents still wonder: “Who will be teaching our children?”

“We need the details, we can’t wait any longer,” Grodsky, who has four school-age children, told ABC News. “Who will be teaching our children remote, and who will be teaching our children in person if they go?”

“When we’re up against this pandemic, and bringing people back into these buildings, the devil is in the details,” she added.

MORE-UFT, a caucus within the UFT, welcomed the delay, but said in a statement that the agreement “does nothing to address myriad other concerns raised by advocates, teachers and parents.” Those concerns include the “increased risk for schools in neighborhoods with high infection rates, the safety of students eating meals indoors, safety concerns around mass transit and an underfunded MTA, or the massive budget cuts that Gov. Cuomo is pushing through at the state level, possible layoffs still looming, and what those cuts will mean for class sizes and safety.”

Tuesday’s announcement gave some clarity on safety and testing protocols as schools plan to reopen for hybrid learning. Buildings or rooms that do not meet safety standards based on the UFT’s 50-item safety checklist — including social distancing of student desks, the availability of masks and face shields, and a room-by-room review of ventilation effectiveness — will remain closed, the union said.

As of Monday, the UFT had inspected more than 1,000 of the roughly 1,400 buildings in the district, with plans to finish the rest this week, a UFT spokesperson told ABC News.

Schools will be provided daily with a 30-day supply of PPE, including masks and disinfectant, Carranza said Tuesday.

Starting Oct. 1, schools will test monthly a random sample of 10-20% of its on-site students and staff for COVID-19. Testing will be free, with results within 48 hours, the city said. Those who test positive will be quarantined for 14 days, and city contact tracing teams will work to find potential contacts. A class will go remote if it has a case, while more than one case in a school will move the entire school to remote instruction until contact tracing is completed, the city said.

Schools will also switch to remote instruction if the city’s seven-day rolling average of positive tests is 3% or higher. It has been hoving at around 1% since late July.

The UFT had initially demanded universal testing of all students and teachers. On Tuesday, de Blasio said that the monthly mandatory testing program was “a way to do this in a way that makes sense and is attainable for a school system this large.” With 1.1 million students, New York City is the largest school district in the country, and the only big-city school system planning to reopen for in-person teaching this month.

Grodsky had hoped to see earlier and more frequent testing as schools reopen, pointing to COVID-19 outbreaks on college campuses.

“It should be a clear warning sign for all of us,” she said. “It seems like it’s a recipe for failure.”

MORE-UFT called attention to over 300 nurse vacancies in its statement. On Tuesday, Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan said that the city was on track to have “the available nurses in every one of our buildings.”

As for information on free child care that will be made available to 100,000 students, including the application process, details will come “very shortly,” de Blasio said Wednesday.

Parents who had planned to start sending their children to school in-person next week will now also need to scramble. “This 11th-hour decision-making is unfair to everyone,” Grodsky said.

De Blasio acknowledged Tuesday that families will need to make accommodations, but said it is a “modest change to resolve outstanding issues.”

For some, the delay isn’t enough time to address safety concerns. New York state assembly member Alicia Hyndman, a self-described public school parent, said on social media that she was “pleased to hear” about the postponement, “but let’s be honest that is not enough time.” She recommended delaying until Oct. 10 “to get this done the right way.”

Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said in a statement that the Department of Education must now “seize this time” to “implement necessary safety protocols, program classes, and align all school staff towards critical goals for this unimaginable school year.”

“The task before us is still monumental,” he said.

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