How the New York City School System Failed the Test of Covid-19

How the New York City School System Failed the Test of Covid-19

How the New York City School System Failed the Test of Covid-19

The city’s leaders bungled the closing of the schools when the coronavirus struck. Can they be trusted to reopen them safely?


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When Mr. Smith, a teacher at Crotona International High School on the Grace Dodge Campus in the Bronx in New York City, started to feel sick, he thought it might be because he’d been training hard. (Smith is a pseudonym, to protect the teacher from reprisals.) An avid runner, he didn’t at first think that his achiness might be the novel coronavirus he’d been hearing about. That was Monday, March 9.

When he got to school, Smith said, a teacher who “is never absent” was out sick with flu-like symptoms. The next day, Tuesday, that teacher was out sick again, and another teacher wasn’t feeling well and went home early because her daughter was ill, too. On Wednesday that teacher texted her colleagues, “My daughter tested positive.”

“That is when I kind of freaked out,” Smith said. He went to an urgent care center near his house and told the doctors there that a colleague had a child who had tested positive for Covid-19. “Immediately, they put me in an isolation room,” he said. The next day, he got his test result: positive. Yet when he informed school administrators of the news, the school was not closed, he said; rather, the next morning, after school had begun, the administration told the staff that the school would remain open because the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) did not have the case on record; it was self-reported.

“I’m like, ‘Self-reporting? You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Smith said. “‘I sent you a fax that was sent to me with the results directly from the hospital. How are you going to say that this is self-reporting?’ Somebody dropped the ball, and somebody dropped the ball big.”

Nearly three months since Smith took sick, countless other Department of Education employees have fallen ill with Covid-19, and at least 74 have died. They were as young as 29 and came from all five of the city’s boroughs. They include teachers (30), paraprofessionals (28), guidance counselors (2), facilities employees (2), and administrators (2). The disproportionately high number of paraprofessionals killed has raised serious questions about inequalities in the system. Teachers’ aides, said Ms. Jones (also a pseudonym), another teacher at Grace Dodge, “have fewer protections within the school system.”

The DOE began releasing these numbers on April 13, amid mounting pressure from educators and elected officials to share information about the toll of Covid-19 on the school community. The department collected the numbers from reports by educators’ family members, but many teachers said the real number could be larger. As it is, the death toll for education workers has been notably high—though in an early April statement, the DOE, in conjunction with the DOHMH, cautioned against linking coronavirus infections to the school system, saying, “School buildings are not a place of greater exposure than any other part of our city.”

The teachers who spoke with The Nation aren’t so sure. As public health experts have begun publishing analyses of the early days of the US outbreak, raising the possibility that the number of deaths could have been reduced by as much as 50 to 80 percent had governments instituted social distancing a week or two earlier, the question of how many school workers could have been saved has haunted New York City educators. For many, the high number of deaths has served as yet more evidence of the great cost educators have paid for what they consider the city’s drawn-out decision to close the public schools. The deaths, wrote Manhattan teacher Ellen Schweitzer in an e-mail, were “horribly tragic and not surprising. It’s what we knew would happen. It’s what drove us to take the actions necessary to close the schools.”

Now, as the conversation turns to reopening, they 
worry that the same lack of care will characterize any return to the classroom. Their experience thus far leads them to fear that budget cuts from the coronavirus-
related economic crisis will take a bite out of the public schools and leave them overstretched and underprotected.

For teachers like Schweitzer, the first two weeks in March remain fateful, a moment when the DOE could have acted boldly but didn’t. On March 1, the first case was confirmed in New York City; by March 12, the number of confirmed cases in the city had ballooned to 95. During this period, school systems in cities and states that were far less affected—from San Francisco to Philadelphia, from Ohio to Florida—had announced that they would be closing. Nonetheless, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted that New York City schools would remain open. “We are going to do our damnedest to keep the schools open,” he said as late as March 13.

For its part, the DOE continued to broadcast calm, reiterating its protocols for schools in e-mails to teachers and parents. As late as March 10, those protocols, outlined in a letter to families, consisted primarily of “strongly encouraging” handwashing throughout the day and promising to ensure every school building had a nurse, which was not the case before the coronavirus outbreak. The guidelines further stated that each school would be supplied with face masks to give to students and staffers who displayed Covid-19 symptoms. But those masks never materialized, according to Ms. Johnson (also not her real name), another teacher on the Grace Dodge campus.

In a statement to The Nation, the DOE also said it had directed custodians to perform “deep cleaning” of the schools “twice a week.” And it said it had “surveyed both public and non-public schools buildings to ensure they had a sufficient supply of hand soap, paper towels, and anti-viral disinfectant inventory.”

But Johnson said her school didn’t have sufficient supplies. “Finally, when a group of teachers came together to start sanitizing our laptops regularly and our desks regularly, we quickly ran out of Clorox wipes and any materials to do that with,” she said. “There was just such neglect.”

Perhaps most alarming of all to school staffers was the plan for what would happen if a member of a school community got sick with Covid-19. Under New York state guidelines, schools would be closed for 24 hours only after a case had been confirmed by the health department; the problem was, it was almost impossible for anyone to get tested at that point. Even more confounding, as cases clearly mounted in the city, DOE officials sent an internal memo to staffers telling them not to call the DOHMH to report cases of Covid-19 among teachers and staff.

In a response to questions about the memo, the DOE said, “DOHMH and DOE had two-way communication on these issues at all times” and that the department had “escalated” reports of potential cases to “both City and State.” As a result, “there was no need for individuals to call the DOHMH hotline which was set up to handle information from testing labs—we were directly checking.”

Yet as Smith’s case suggests, this process was, if nothing else, slow and cumbersome at a time when every moment counted. While the DOE told The Nation that it “immediately looked into this [case] when it was brought to our attention” and “took steps in accordance with applicable State guidance…and notified the school community” when the positive result was confirmed, that notification did not arrive until Monday evening, March 16; that was four days after Smith got his positive test result. Moreover, the notice went only to staff, teachers said, not the whole school community, which remained in the dark about the test result.

The guidance given to teachers and schools was “nonsensical,” City Councilmember Brad Lander said. One school, which his children had attended, had identified a parent as positive for the virus. “They had a policy that if a student or a teacher was a positive ID’d case, they would close the school for 24 hours and clean it, but if a parent had been positively ID’d—even if the whole family was housed together—then nothing happens. The school is just open. It was totally an incoherent policy. It bore no relationship to the science.”

In a statement to The Nation, DOE spokesperson Miranda Barbot defended the department’s handling of the crisis. “Since the beginning, the Department of Education issued near-daily updates aligned to federal, state, and local guidance that adjusted to the rapidly changing public health landscape,” she wrote. “All of our decisions are informed by public health experts in order to protect the health and safety of our students and staff.”

By the time de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza decided to close the schools on March 15, there was a sense that the city had already fallen behind the curve. But by many accounts, the decision might have been even more delayed, the deaths more numerous, if not for a robust pressure campaign waged both inside and outside the government. On the inside were staffers at the DOHMH, who reportedly threatened to resign, as well as de Blasio’s own advisers, who fought bitterly with him. On the outside were the teachers, whose concern about the city’s failure to act more aggressively to keep educators, students, and their families safe reached a boiling point in the days before the shutdown announcement.

For Smith, that point came shortly after he told the school of his Covid-19 diagnosis and his school’s administration opted to keep the school open. “It wasn’t about me anymore,” he said. “I am 50 years old, but I am pretty healthy. I am a lifelong athlete. Forget about me. I teach 90 kids a week, and those kids are with other teachers. It is my duty to make sure that this does not become worse.”

Smith wasn’t alone. Frustrated with the slow response, rank-and-file teachers began to talk to one another about what they were experiencing, and they came to the same conclusion: They had to do something to pressure elected officials to close the schools.

Schweitzer, who teaches at Stuyvesant High School and came down with symptoms similar to Covid-19’s after the schools closed, recalled that early on there was a sense that even if the virus wasn’t a problem for young people, they could nonetheless be carriers, tracking it from school to home and home to school. “We were very concerned about the health of our more vulnerable colleagues,” she said. “We could all name particular people who work in the school buildings we know have vulnerable health conditions or are older. When you can put a specific name and a face to somebody who is high risk, how do you not do everything you can to try to protect that person?”

From there, the discussion about taking action came together very quickly, Schweitzer said. “There were people, certainly by [March] 10 and 11, who were walking around saying, ‘This is crazy. The schools should be closed.’ As soon as people started talking about it out loud, it was kind of like an emperor’s new clothes thing, like, ‘Yes, why aren’t we? This is ridiculous. Why are we reporting to school in the high-risk environment that we’re in?’”

With little sign of movement from the de Blasio administration, teachers began trying to take their concerns public. One teacher, whose wife is an emergency physician, wrote a piece published in the New York Daily News on March 13; three others cowrote an op-ed published by The New York Times on March 14, all calling for schools to be closed.

The teachers began to use an existing e-mail list for union members to talk to one another; in those conversations, the idea of a sick-out—an unofficial work stoppage in which workers call in sick in an organized fashion—became popular. “You start looking at those exponential graphs, and it becomes really clear that every day is crucial,” Schweitzer said.

Strikes by public employees are banned under New York’s Taylor Law, and although the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)—which represents New York’s 75,000 teachers, 19,000 classroom paraprofessionals, and other education and care workers—called for schools to be closed, the union did not officially endorse plans for a job action. But regardless of that, the teachers were becoming active.

“We were pretty aware that we were going to be in classrooms as long as possible,” said Jones. Despite the promises in the letters to parents that there would be frequent handwashing and a nurse present, she said, “we had to advocate to get soap in the bathrooms because there wasn’t soap in the bathrooms. The school nurse was only there a couple of days a week, even though there is a clinic downstairs.”

By March 13, rumors had begun circulating on the Grace Dodge Campus, where Jones works, that someone had fallen sick. The same was true at schools across the city; according to the mayor, only 68 percent of students showed up that day. “They are really active on social media, and they are highly connected,” Jones said of her students. Parents, too, had begun expressing their anger on social media, using the hashtag #CloseNYCSchools.

Over the weekend, Jones was involved in phone conversations with other teachers, including a call with over 400 educators organized by the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a reform caucus in the union that was formed in the wake of the successful 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike. While many MORE members are longtime activists, Schweitzer noted that people “came out of the woodwork” to get involved in pushing for school closure.

“The people who are the regular organizers, obviously, they made it happen,” she said. “But it was also so many rank-and-filers, who hadn’t necessarily been that involved before, just sprang into action seeing that this was urgent, that others needed to step in and take charge and that a sick-out would work.”

Over the weekend, Schweitzer said, teachers started reporting to the city’s automated system for requesting a substitute that they would be absent on Monday; they did so early on so the numbers would be available for officials to see. Even before the planned sick-out, there was an increase in absences that Friday across the system. Finally on Sunday, de Blasio and Carranza announced that the schools would close. The announcement arrived in the late afternoon, leaving parents scrambling to figure out how to navigate the coming week.

In resisting shutting down the schools for as long as he did, de Blasio returned again and again to the idea of equity and his concern that closing them would inflict enormous harm on the city’s millions of vulnerable families. The schools should remain open, he insisted, so that low-income residents and the children of health care providers had somewhere to go during the day—not only a place to learn and be safe but also to receive free meals.

To many teachers, like Jones, this idea made a certain sense. “I know that a lot of people are concerned about getting access to essential services for the most-needy students, and that is a real issue,” she said.

Yet then as now, they wondered what might have happened had the mayor channeled his rightful concern for equity into preparing the system to help the most vulnerable families weather a likely shutdown rather than stubbornly fighting it and, in the process, putting those same students and their families at risk. There was no way, Jones said, that keeping a million students in packed buildings for hours at a time would have been safe, but the buildings could have been used to distribute food and even provide health care. Johnson agreed, saying, “I am not a nurse, but I am happy to hand out food, lunches. Or teach me how to give the swab [for coronavirus testing]. There is a role for us to play rather than acting like we are part of the problem.”

As it was, the transition to the country’s largest experiment in remote learning was bumpy. For Smith, who is healthy once again, remote teaching has been a source of both gratification and frustration. “It is very rewarding,” he said, when students ask how he is doing, and he wants to make sure the students are still learning so it doesn’t worsen what teachers call the summer lag, the loss of learning during summer break.

But of course, online classes in these circumstances are far from normal. “For a lot of us, we are finding it more difficult than going in and just doing our regular job,” said Schweitzer, who when we spoke June 1 was suffering a relapse of what still had not been confirmed as Covid-19. “It seems to be very uneven, by school and by district, exactly what and how much teachers are expected to do and how much they are expected to make the students do. I have some fear about how this is going to be used long term.”

According to the DOE, it has given out 255,000 Internet-enabled iPads in addition to 175,000 school laptops, tablets, and Chromebooks to make sure all students can access remote learning. Yet that process has been incomplete. Only about two-thirds of Jones’s students are able to connect to online classrooms, she said. And even with all the equipment in place, translating real-world education into its remote counterpart has been challenging.

“Online learning is no substitute for classroom learning,” City Councilmember Lander said. Despite the DOE’s impressive if troubled attempt to distribute the necessary technology to students, he said, online learning has exacerbated the existing disparities within the school system. “It is no good for middle-class white students, either, but it also amplifies inequality.”

Teachers didn’t expect the district to be fully prepared to go all online, yet they were still frustrated about how the rollout of online learning went. “We should be able to expect the administration of the DOE to provide helpful guidance and support as we do our jobs,” Schweitzer said. “But sadly, many teachers don’t have much evidence that the DOE does this even under normal circumstances, so while we are angry that leadership has done so little, it’s also not the case that we are really so surprised.”

Now, as the school year comes to a stuttering end, educators face a new set of challenges. There is the looming question of when and how the schools will reopen, and there is the threat of dramatic changes to the education system: In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo promised more education cuts—as much as a 20 percent reduction—and on May 5, he announced that he plans to partner with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a new normal for the schools. “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms,” Cuomo told reporters. “Why? With all the technology you have?”

New York State United Teachers, the statewide teachers’ union federation, reacted immediately, condemning Cuomo’s plan. “If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” read a statement from NYSUT president Andy Pallotta.

Yet even as they scramble to respond to this latest attempt at top-down reform, the teachers are in the difficult position of trying to prevent a premature reopening and fighting the imposition of long-term remote learning—which the teachers who spoke with The Nation stressed would be bad for teachers, students, and overstretched parents. Right now, the question of when the city’s schools will reopen remains unanswered. Will students and teachers return to their schools in September and resume traditional classes? Or will they open under some modified program that involves staggered attendance—with students alternating which days of the week they attend—along with temperature checks and other public health protocols? Or will they hold off until the arrival of a vaccine? The DOE told The Nation that it is “considering many options for a successful and safe reopening in the fall and will always follow the guidance of our public health experts.”

At the time this article went to press, the UFT had not endorsed a specific proposal, but it has released a public petition with demands for what reopening schools must include: widespread access to regular testing, temperature checks, rigorous cleaning protocols, protective equipment, and “an exhaustive tracing procedure.” For its part, MORE is calling for a memorandum of agreement around the crisis, laying out clearly what teachers’ responsibilities and rights are in these extraordinary circumstances. “This MOA,” the caucus said in a statement, “could also serve as the basis for future crises, which are only going to become more common as the effects of climate change continue to be unaddressed.” Because teachers’ conditions vary widely from school to school, MORE wants teachers to have discretion over the form their instruction takes, control over their working hours, and relief from the evaluations that make their jobs more difficult.

“I think these kinds of things are more important to attend to than unrealistic fantasies about reopening school buildings,” Schweitzer said. “But of course, everyone is loath to point out the reality that schools can’t be safely reopened for such an indeterminate amount of time.”

The reality of reopening in New York City is a logistical nightmare, Schweitzer noted in an e-mail. “Every time I hear someone talk about spacing students out in the classroom, I roll my eyes for several reasons, but mainly I just think it’s an irrelevant conversation for New York City due to the transit situation…. [I]t is largely a waste of time to imagine ways of keeping us ‘safe and healthy’ in the school building when we have no safe and healthy way of getting to school in the first place,” she said.

But teachers are beginning to have those discussions, she added, to prepare for the battles ahead. Schweitzer wrote, “The question is, what do UFT members overall think—what are they willing to fight for, what are they willing to refuse to do.”

Those questions have taken on even more urgency as protests against police violence and white supremacy have rocked New York. “The collapse of the NYC school system in the face of coronavirus exposes the tremendous pressure our schools were under to pick up the slack of a destroyed social safety net,” said Kevin Prosen, an English teacher at IS 230 in the borough of Queens who is also a UFT delegate and a member of MORE. “Now, with the NYPD mobilizing their multibillion-dollar annual budget to counter protests against police brutality and no doubt attacking some of our students, the priorities of our liberal city and state governments are there for everyone to see. There is no way out of this that doesn’t include redirecting major parts of the police budget to schools and other social services.”

As this article went to press, MORE was working on a health justice agenda for the schools, based on three tenets: anti-racism, public health, and full funding for education. The aim, said Marilena Marchetti, an occupational therapist at a number of Brooklyn schools and a member of the team working on the agenda, was to consolidate the values of the broad movement for education justice, involving not just UFT members but also parent, student, and community groups around the city. “We cannot go back to the way things were, with conditions that allow for the bare minimum, simply surviving. Once the dust settles from this unforeseen yet totally predictable trauma, we want more from schools. We want every school to be a place where students truly thrive,” she said. “The fact is, that will require a redistribution of wealth and taxing the rich. We’re here for that, we’re fighting for that.”

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