What to Know
- City Hall and New York City's largest teachers' union reached a deal Tuesday on a plan to safely reopen schools, potentially averting the first teachers strike in the five boroughs in 45 years
- As part of the deal, the planned hybrid start of school will be delayed from Sept. 10 to Sept. 21; teachers will use Sept. 10-Sept. 15 for additional preparation. A three-day transitional remote period will follow for students
- The head of the United Federation of Teachers joined de Blasio at his briefing and said the new plan assures New York City public schools have the most aggressive policies and safeguards of any system in the U.S.
New York City's largest teachers' union and City Hall have reached an agreement over a plan to safely reopen schools for part-time in-person learning, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday. The deal averts a potential strike authorization vote, which could have brought about the city's first teachers' strike since 1975.
Under the new plan, the start of hybrid learning will be delayed by a few days to allow preparation time for teachers and staff. School will not start Sept. 10 as planned. Teachers will be in the buildings starting Sept. 8 and use that Thursday (9/10), along with the following Friday (9/11), Monday (9/14) and Tuesday (9/15), for additional prep. A three-day transitional period of remote instruction for students will begin on Wednesday, Sept. 16.
On Monday, Sept. 21, the school buildings open "full strength" for blended learning as described previously, de Blasio said.
"One of the things we've affirmed in these discussions is nothing replaces in-person learning," de Blasio said. "It's a very complex moment in history to say the least. We have a common deep concern for this city. We also believe profoundly in the New York City public schools and the meaning of public education."
In a later interview on CNN, the mayor also ruled out any chances of further delays.
"It's going to happen. We have the agreement with all the key labor unions, we have the PPE and the cleaning supplies in place, we're doing the final run-throughs on the buildings; we're ready," de Blasio said.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, sat near de Blasio for the briefing Tuesday and expressed his full support for the new plan, calling it the most aggressive and safest of any school system in the country.
"This is what I would hold up as an example for other places on how people are supposed to get things done. They are not easy," Mulgrew said. "But I sit here today talking to parents, all of my members ... and I can say to you now that independent medical experts have stamped this plan, that New York City's public school system has the most aggressive policies and safeguards of any school system in the United States of America."
Much work remains to be done to ensure an equitable start to the year across the city's 1,800 school buildings in all five boroughs, the city and union agree. Both pledged to work together to resolve school-specific needs as they emerge.
The 3,200-member UFT Delegate Assembly endorsed the agreement in a vote Tuesday afternoon. The union had previously said the city's back-to-school plan lacked transparency, specifics and critical standards on testing -- like ensuring every adult and child who steps foot in a school building has been tested for COVID -- among other requirements.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
On the testing front, the city will make free testing available every month at every school in a way that "maximizes the ease" of getting tested, de Blasio said. That will be part of a "rigorous" monthly medical monitoring program where 10 to 20 percent of students and staff at every school are tested each month, with results within 48 hours. Kids will be given a more gentle swab test, rather than the more uncomfortable nasal passage test.
Parental consent is required to test anyone who is younger than 18. Anyone who tests positive will be isolated and test and trace efforts will kick in. Should a parent deny consent, de Blasio said that child may not be permitted in school for a time, but he says he feels that parents will overwhelmingly agree to testing.
Electrostatic cleaning, social distancing, mask mandates and a host of other measures that had already been discussed will remain in place going forward. Certified nurses will also be present in every single school, the mayor says, and there will be a well-stocked supply of PPE.
Both de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have repeatedly said their multi-layered framework draws from the most successful school reopening strategies across the globe. They've also repeatedly said they would not reopen a school building or even an individual classroom unless it were safe.
Are teachers allowed to strike in New York City?
As a matter of law, no, they are not. The Public Employees' Fair Employment Act, better known as the Taylor Law, went into effect in 1967 and prohibits strikes by public employees, including teachers.
Are there penalties for violating the Taylor Law?
There are, and they can be substantial. A union member who goes on strike in violation of the law can be docked two days' pay for each day they strike, and the union can lose the right to have dues automatically deducted from members' salaries. Union leaders can also be arrested and jailed, as happened to the head of the Transit Workers Union after they walked out in Dec. 2005
Do teachers know it's illegal for them to strike?
They do, and their union has said as much. "The members of the UFT know that public employee strikes are illegal, but we are determined to do what is necessary to protect our students and the families of New York City," union head Michael Mulgrew said in an Aug. 31 statement.
Have NYC teachers gone on strike before?
They have. Following the founding of the UFT in 1960, the union struck five times between 1960 and 1975 (though not since then). The 1968 strike in particular, which closed schools for two months, is considered a major event in the history of labor and race relations.
As de Blasio said, the union and City Hall had agreed from the start that in-person was ultimately the best option. The union just wasn't sold on the safety elements. The goal is to not just get students back to some form of safe in-person learning this month. It's to ensure that safety continues through the entire academic year. Having to close schools again over outbreaks would only cause more disruption.
The city is expected to complete inspections of all its school buildings by mid-week. It will then publish a rolling list of each school's outstanding issues, if any. Those inspections include assessments to ensure appropriate ventilation.
While New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson cheered the decision, calling it a "step in the right direction," he said it should have come far sooner.
"This common-sense measure should have been announced sooner to better allow school staff and families to plan properly for the academic year, ... Instead, Mayor de Blasio dragged his feet while parents and educators fretted about how to make the impossible work, waiting until a week before school is scheduled to provide clarity for our school community," Johnson said in a statement. "We know our City's principals and teachers will work very hard to ensure schools are ready by September 21st, but they will need better guidance from the Department of Education (DOE) to adequately prepare and best protect our students."
Even with the strict inspections and other safety precautions, some parents still have concerns over whether it's safe to start in person right now. As of Tuesday, more than a third -- 37 percent -- of families with children in public schools opted out of the default hybrid model, with 366,553 requests made for all-remote learning. That is a sharp uptick from when de Blasio said only about a quarter of parents were choosing that option earlier in August. Those parents will have the opportunity to opt back in to blended learning on a quarterly basis.
De Blasio insisted, however, that the "overwhelming majority" of parents wanted in-person schooling.
"We gave parents the opportunity to opt out of they wanted to and do all-remote — the vast majority said no, remote doesn't work as well as in-person learning, particularly for kids who have the greatest needs," the mayor said. "What we found in so many of our communities, particularly less-privileged, less-advantaged communities, is they knew that they're kids being back in school meant not just teaching. It meant physical health support, mental health support, nutrition programs — parents want their kids to experience that again."
New York City, the nation's largest public school district with more than 1.1 million students, had been the only district of America's biggest 10 to say it would begin the year with a blended approach. The rest -- from Chicago to Los Angeles to Houston -- have chosen to start the 2020-21 academic year fully remotely.
Many districts have been moved to at least reconsider options in the wake of outbreaks on college campuses across America, including in New York state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo raised the warning flag for schools over the weekend and again Monday, saying that K-12 will almost certainly, inevitably see some degree of the COVID-19 clusters popping up in instutions of higher learning nationwide.
"School districts would be well advised to look at colleges. The basic dynamic is the same," the governor said Monday.
Cuomo also seemed to suggest that New York City's baseline positivity rate for re-closing its public schools -- 3 percent -- was too high.
"A 3 percent infection rate, you know, that's a high infection rate in a congregate situation. Three percent is high in a dense environment, like a dense urban environment where you have people taking public transportation; it's a crowded environment," Cuomo said. "Three percent is high."
Mayor de Blasio's 3 percent threshold to re-close New York City schools is stricter than Cuomo's is for the rest of the state (9 percent, once K-12 schools open -- or 5 percent for instituions of higher learning). The city has maintained an infection rate around 1 percent or lower for more than a month, but once people start returning more to some semblance of an out-of-home routine, that may change.
New York City students had their last day of in-class instruction March 13. All schools statewide were closed by March 18.
The union had threatened to strike because it was concerned the previous back-to-school plan did not account sufficiently for potential upticks in COVID cases that could endanger the safety of its members and public school students.
The last teachers strike in the city came in 1975 amid a financial crisis for New York City. The latest threats came amid another financial crisis, this one magnified exponentially by a global pandemic.
The union's at-time fractious relationship with City Hall has been made that much more tense by looming layoffs -- 22,000 city workers, many of them teachers -- made necessary by the COVID budget crisis and lack of direct federal aid.
Layoff notices were scheduled to begin going out Monday, but de Blasio said they would be delayed on a day-to-day basis after unions asked for time to convince the state to reconvene legislators to approve long-term borrowing power.
That would provide the sustenance to avert the layoffs immediately, de Blasio said, and assure critical city workers would remain on hand to continue fighting the ongoing war against coronavirus.