COVID-19: NYC Public Advocate Calls for Further Delay of School Reopening

School Reopening
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[NYC School Reopening]
Williams: "The City must change its thinking away from focusing on a date and instead focus on accommodating the most vulnerable students and families first and building the needed health infrastructure in our school communities."
Photo: Twitter

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams called for a further delay of in-person school reopening at a hearing of the City Council Committee on Education Thursday, after the de Blasio administration finally announced an eleven-day delay of the start date this week.

Public Advocate Williams has been a vocal critic of the city's re-opening plan, and has put forth his own plan. His plan would delay in-person education for all students until at least October, based upon safety standards and infrastructure needs being met, then allow a phased re-opening beginning with elementary school students, with older students potentially returning in 2021.

At Thursday's hearing, the Public Advocate discussed the failures of the city's strategy and approach to re-opening, and voiced his support for Council Member Mark Treyger's resolution which calls on the Department of Education to delay the reopening of public schools until each school meets the safety standards children and school staff require. The Department of Education chose not to attend the virtual hearing to speak on the issue.

The Public Advocate lamented that of a list of imperfect options, "The Administration has chosen the worst of those." He emphasized the risk, arguing "The City must change its thinking away from focusing on a date and instead focus on accommodating the most vulnerable students and families first and building the needed health infrastructure in our school communities to ensure a safe return. By utilizing in-person learning again, we are not only putting our students and school staffers at risk, but New York City as a whole and possibly the nation."

He also expressed disappointment and frustration at the Department of Education's failure to appear at the hearing, saying in part that "I am appalled that they have refused to come and have a conversation with the Council so that we can have a public discourse on this. This is what people need right now; they cannot get information from a sound bite."

The Public Advocate Williams' full statement is below.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION SEPTEMBER 3, 2020:

Good morning,

My name is Jumaane D. Williams, the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chair Mark Treyger and members of the Committee on Education for holding this very timely and very important hearing. This week, the Mayor announced the delay of starting the school year from September 10 to September 16, with in-person instruction beginning on September 21. While I'm glad the Mayor has heeded my - and others' - call to delay re-opening, an eleven-day delay of in-person learning is not enough to guarantee that our students, teachers, and school administrators will not be at risk of contracting the Coronavirus.

Chair Treyger's resolution, Reso 1410, calls on our City's Department of Education to delay the reopening of public schools until each school meets the safety standards children and school staff require. I wholeheartedly support this resolution, because I believe our approach to re-opening should be grounded in science and executed in equity to safeguard the health of our school staff, students, and their families, not to mention the entire City. In July, my Office released a white paper on the reopening of New York City schools - it tracks the phased-in plan of Chair Treyger as well - in which I recommended the City to invest in remote learning and delay in-person schooling by at least six weeks, a timeline already implemented by several of the nation's other large school districts, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston.

My report laid out a series of stages for a successful, healthy reopening of schools in our City. The first stage includes the expansion of Regional Enrichment Centers (RECs) to accommodate child care needs, with a 5-day solution for working parents and guardians and incorporate a plan for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), special needs, students in Temporary Housing, and multilingual learners. Most important in stage 1 is to use the funding to ensure medically advised and community informed health and safety measures can be not only initially met but sustained. Second, if the number of new COVID-19 transmissions continues to decrease, the Administration could consider allowing families the ability to opt to return elementary school students to in-person learning beginning in October. Older students would remain at home, allowing elementary students whose families opted for in-person learning to use the space at empty middle schools and high schools. The third stage of reopening comes around the middle of the school year, when we evaluate our progress and any potential hotspots to determine if it is safe to return to in-person learning for students of all grades. The City would come up with a plan for the second half of the 2020-21 school year, and we would only transition to a full reopening for students of all ages and grade levels with the approval of health experts.

Our City's handling of remote learning has had its flaws, but it still remains our safest option at the moment. The Department of Education needs to improve the way it operates remote learning by ensuring all students have access to the technology they need. We have had three months to make certain that all students, especially those in temporary housing or shelters, have iPads, tablets, and any other remote-learning devices needed to engage in virtual classroom sessions, and the internet access that's needed to get that done. This time has also allowed our City to determine how additional funds will be invested more strategically to students who do need in-person learning, such as those with IEPs and students with disabilities.

The City must change its thinking away from focusing on a date and instead focus on accommodating the most vulnerable students and families first and building the needed health infrastructure in our school communities to ensure a safe return. By utilizing in-person learning again, we are not only putting our students and school staffers at risk, but New York City as a whole and possibly the nation because at the beginning the way New York City handled the Coronavirus problem with a lack of leadership probably exposed other people going into other states. Those returning to in-person instruction will be taking mass transit and subsequently be in the proximity of commuters. We cannot afford to gamble with the health of our students by permitting in-person learning before our schools are ready. I urge the Administration to consider delaying the start of in-person learning until October, and further prioritize remote-learning for all of our schools. No one is denying that in-person learning is best. We only have not-so-good options. We have to choose the best of those. Sadly, the Administration has chosen the worst of those.

Lastly, I just want to say thank you to the Chancellor and even to the Mayor. I have had many discussions and they have been open to it. But I am appalled that they have refused to come and have a conversation with the Council so that we can have a public discourse on this. This is what people need right now; they cannot get information from a soundbite. And to use an excuse that you don't comment on resolutions is to try to devalue the City Council. Because of the set-up, many people don't know that the Mayor has most of the power. Most of the things put forth on education by the Education Committee will be by resolution. I think it's unacceptable that they won't come when there's no pandemic; it is certainly unacceptable that they won't come during a pandemic so that we can have this conversation out in the open. And people who are confused, worried, or scared can see what's happening and why. The Administration should be ashamed that they're not here today to discuss this most important topic.

Thank you, Mr. Chair for the time. I look forward to the rest of the discussion.

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