Parents, teachers say de Blasio is downplaying real concerns over schools

 politico.com  08/14/2020 09:21:31   MADINA TOUR�
Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to the media.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that 74 percent of public school students, more than 700,000, want to return in the fall, and 26 percent are opting for remote learning.

But families and educators interviewed by POLITICO this week say the way the city is characterizing those numbers papers over significant problems with how it conducted its outreach and the painful decisions parents are being forced to make.

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The mayor's percentages are derived from the amount of parents who told the Department of Education they planned to purse online-only instruction when schools open in September. Some parents, teachers and advocates argue that doesn't necessarily mean everyone else wants to come back. Some families werent aware of the survey and some are undecided. Families also may have chosen blended learning for flexibility, as they can choose remote learning at any time.

But the mayors assertion isnt sitting well with parents who are facing a difficult choice between their childrens education and their safety.

Im tired of the mayor spewing false data," said East Harlem parent Kaliris Y. Salas-Ramirez, a distinguished lecturer at the CUNY School of Medicine. "I dont believe that theyve given parents enough information to actually make an informed decision."

She said her 8-year-old son, who attends Central Park East I in East Harlem, has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for behavioral dysregulation. She opted for blended, or partially in-person learning because November seems far away and I did want the flexibility that if my son needed his services like occupational therapy or counseling, that I could take him in for that.

Salas-Ramirez is president of Community Education Council 4 and says she doesn't know if there will be a sufficient number of teachers for both blended and remote learning. She said theres only one months worth of personal protective equipment and only two electrostatic cleaners per school.

The Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the citys principals union, urged the city to delay the first day of school, and the United Federation of Teachers, the citys teachers union, backed them up, arguing schools arent ready to safely handle students.

De Blasio accused the unions of being overly dramatic, and argued individual principals think differently.

"Unions will always sound various alarms and unions will say things sometimes [in] very dramatic fashion, this is nothing new in New York City," he said, pointing to the benefits of in-person learning.

But critics say their concerns are based on the citys missteps, both during the pandemic and before.

"We're rushing to fix a broken system and we're not even looking to fix it the right way. We're looking for 99-cent bandaids that come off within 24 hours," said Johanna Garcia, former president of Community Education Council 6 and a candidate for the Council seat currently held by Ydanis Rodriguez. There's just so much unsaid in the survey process and to narrow it down to parents having said, Yes, I want my child to engage in hybrid learning is disingenuous."

Her 13-year-old son, who has dyslexia and ADHD, had a hard time with remote learning and she said shes concerned about safety on school buses. Her daughter was accepted to the iSchool in Lower Manhattan but shes not sure she wants her taking the train.

DOE press secretary Miranda Barbot confirmed that about 586,000 students  80 percent of the students who are under blended learning  were automatically enrolled because the parents didnt submit a response to the city. The results do not include charter students.

Nickesha Charles, a teacher at P.S. 369 in Brooklyn, which serves students with disabilities, has a 10-year-old son at P.S. 230. Her fiancé, whos also a teacher, applied for remote accommodations but shes undecided as she doesnt know what her schedule or remote learning will look like or how schools will plan for a worst case scenario in which most families dont come back. She urged the city to indicate how individuals who left the city during the pandemic factor into the picture.

[De Blasio] should not be allowed to count my non-response as an affirmative response, Charles said. I'm just incredibly incredibly frustrated by the way this whole thing has happened on every front, as an educator and a mother."

Ife Damon, an English teacher at Curtis High School on Staten Island, has an 11-year-old daughter in middle school and a 9-year-old son in elementary school.

She applied for remote learning for herself as well as her children. She was diagnosed with cancer in January and went through chemotherapy, and her daughter takes medication that lowers her immune system. (Even without health risks, she would still choose the remote option.) She warned the virus could spike again in the winter months.

As a teacher and someone in the system, I know that many contacts are old and that we dont have updated information for many parents and students, Damon said. With that word-of-mouth, maybe theyre hearing some things but maybe some are not. I dont know if thats a real, true representation of how every parent and child feels and teacher feels about returning back to the building.

There are many families who actively chose blended learning.

Dr. Uché Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician who resides in Brooklyn, has a 3-year-old son starting prekindergarten and a 5-year-old son starting first grade, both at P.S. 11. She said she's open to the idea of sending her kids back to school under blended learning, which she says is a measured approach.

They're young kids & they're gonna be having cohorts where they're splitting up the class and also some parents are not sending their kids back so I'm hoping the classrooms won't have that many kids in there, Blackstock said. I'm hoping it's a combination of factors that will produce an environment that is relatively low risk and safe enough to have my kids there."

She said many parents, especially Black and Brown, want in-person learning so kids can access services and because they cant work from home.

I think its an unfair choice that parents have to make, unfair choice that teachers have to make but this is what happens when you have an educational system thats been under-funded, a public health system thats been under-funded and we are forced to make these really difficult decisions, Blackstock added.

Despite her support for blended learning, she expressed serious concerns: the availability of testing and tracing, how prepared the city is to handle kids returning, schools closing after a few weeks if there are positive cases, ventilation issues and families who cant afford tutors or other resources.

Carlotta Pope, a teacher at Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School and an adjunct at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, selected blended learning because she misses her students. Her principal set up little networks to support staff.

When you have that kind of mindset and you have things and committees put in place, it makes it easier, Pope said.

But she said the citys numbers only reflect survey participants. Shes doubtful that many kids can socially distance and questioned whether schools will get necessary resources.

The education department said it planned to have schools ready for the 700,000 students it expects to return.

We are planning for the vast majority of families to return to school buildings in the fall and we are working day and night to ensure we are ready to welcome them back and meet the strictest health and safety standards set by any school district in the nation, DOE spokesperson Katie OHanlon said in a statement. The resilience of our families, students, and educators has been nothing short of remarkable and this survey is meant to offer options and flexibility for parents while helping educators plan for the fall.

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