NY's 4th Largest School District Announces All-Virtual Start as NYC Reopening Debate Rages

Facing mounting backlash, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio once again vowed Thursday the five boroughs' schools would not open for in-person learning unless it was safe

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What to Know

  • More NYC principals and the city's largest teachers' union are calling for a delay to in-person learning this fall if certain safety requirements aren't met
  • Among other standards, the teachers' union wants mandatory COVID testing for all students and educators; it also calls for a more transparent, school-specific plan than it says the city has provided
  • On Thursday, the Yonkers public school district, the fourth-largest in the state with 27,000 kids in 39 schools, announced it would go all virtual until early October, adding to the pressure already on NYC to do the same

New York's fourth-largest public school district, Yonkers, announced Thursday it would start the 2020-21 academic year all-remote, putting more pressure on New York City officials already facing controversy over a planned hybrid start.

Yonkers, which has nearly 30,000 students in 39 school buildings, voted Thursday to open school virtually on Sept. 8 and move to a blended approach on Oct. 5., with kids in class two days a week. The person in charge of Westchester County's largest school district, Superintendent Dr. Edwin Quezada, said the decision to hit pause was tough but necessary, and that they will work to help families who need computers.

"I think we are in a good place and I'm extremely grateful to our trustees for making a decision considering the best interest of everyone," Quezada said. "Giving ourselves a little more time to prepare is essential to the process."

When asked to weigh in on what path they would choose for their children, more than 30 percent of Yonkers families opted for remote learning. The city joins a growing number of school districts, from Newark to Chicago to Houston and Los Angeles, opting for that approach.

New York City, meanwhile, continues to push the mayor's and school chancellor's plan to have students in physical classrooms at least twice a week by mid-September. Facing mounting backlash from teachers and principals over safety standards for schools' in-person reopening to students, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a "back-to-school pledge" Thursday that he says should ease concerns.

The pledge, the city's latest effort to assuage safety concerns from educators and parents alike, includes a detailed list of what's being done in each school across the five boroughs so "every parent, every New Yorker, can see the comprehensive effort to ensure we have the safest school year ever," de Blasio said.

"We also have to aspire to greatness," the mayor added. "We have to get our kids back on track after everything they've been through. We want to make clear to everyone in this city how comprehensive and serious our commitment is."

Among other components, the pledge includes details on free PPE, hand sanitizer for classrooms, masks, full-time nurses, cleanliness and how schools will use cutting-edge disinfectant technology to ensure a safe and continued reopening. Read it here.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says the city has seen its lowest coronavirus positivity rate ever, but as the new school year approaches, teachers are concerned about that number rising back up if the department of education fails to implement strict safety guidelines. NBC New York's Tracie Strahan reports.

Both de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza also reiterated the same message they have been issuing for more than a month: If it's not safe for city schools to reopen for in-person learning, they won't reopen for in-person learning.

But it's the standards of those safety measures that have been called into question. The city's largest teachers' union, United Federation of Teachers, says the standards aren't high enough, arguing they should include mandatory COVID testing for every single child and adult who sets foot in a school building.

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


The union published a safety checklist Wednesday that lays out its standards for testing and other protocol. President Mike Mulgrew, says no school should open unless it meets all the criteria on that list; he threatened a teachers' strike or alternate court action if schools return otherwise.

A caucus within UTF is also petitioning for the removal of Carranza as chancellor of New York City public schools amid the heated debate.

"The one million school children, their families, and the hundreds of thousands of faculty and staff of NYC Public Schools deserve competent and trustworthy leadership," Lydia Howrilka of UFT Solidarity wrote in the petition.

Howrilka went on to accuse the mayor and chancellor of "consistently" failing to provide that leadership, charging them instead with sowing confusion and chaos over an alleged politically motivated effort to reopen schools Sept. 10.

De Blasio's administration has repeatedly denied any such allegations, accusing union members instead of playing last-minute games at the expense of students. On Wednesday, de Blasio said the city saw its lowest daily test positivity rate since the pandemic began -- another sign of sustained improvement for the former epicenter of the national COVID crisis. But how low is low enough? And should that be the ultimate determinant of whether schools reopen in person?

There may be no clear "right" answer to that question. There’s little agreement on a specific threshold or even a measurement across the country. In New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo cleared schools to reopen in person because of a sustained 5 percent test positivity rate over a 14-day rolling period. If that ticks up to 9 percent, he'll order them re-closed. In New York City, de Blasio has said schools can open -- and stay open -- only if the rate is below 3 percent. Right now, the state is in the midst of a 13-day streak of positivity rates below 1 percent -- and on Thursday notched its lowest hospitalizations since March 18.

That positivity rate isn't part of UFT's push for safe school reopening standards. The union insists the city's current school reopening plan lacks transparency and specifics. President Mike Mulgrew says it could be "one of the biggest debacles in history" if schools reopen in person Sept. 10 under present standards.

"It is our judgment at this point that if you open schools September 10, it will be one of the biggest debacles in history," Mulgrew tweeted Wednesday. "The minute we feel the mayor is trying to force people into a situation that is unsafe, we go to court; we go to job actions."

The last New York City teachers' strike was in 1975, according to the union. If teachers were to take that action they'd be breaking a law known as “Taylor Law,” which would fine and even jail teachers for the action. To that concern, Mulgrew tweeted, "If a court determines we are breaking the Taylor Law, so be it."

NBC New York's Tracie Strahan reports.

De Blasio accused the union of playing games and moving the goalposts on the fly. He claimed the union had never asked for mandatory testing before now and reiterated that a strike would be illegal, telling educators on Thursday that reporting to work is a moral imperative.

"Our transit workers did, our first responders did, health care workers did, grocery workers did; public servants show up and serve people," de Blasio said.

For the last month, the mayor has consistently said the city will prioritize student and staff safety above all else, rolling out new requirements like certified nurses in each school along with strict COVID protocol mandates and comparatively low thresholds for re-closure.

"They can play games all they want. It is not legal. It's not responsible for a leader of any union to talk about doing something illegal," de Blasio said. "We care more about kids and parents than these games ... I expect every employee of the City of New York to remember who they work for: the families of the kids of New York City."

New York City is aiming for a hybrid reopening this fall, with most of the 1.1 million students spending two or three days a week in physical classrooms and learning remotely the rest of the time. About a quarter of families — hundreds of thousands — have opted to start fully remote, though they'll have the ability to opt back in for in-person quarterly. Fifteen percent of teachers have indicated they'll only instruct remotely.

Given those numbers, the teachers' union says it expects up to 750,000 students and staff would need to be tested before school starts, under its guidelines.

The teachers' union in Manhattan is sharing its plan for reopening schools this year. Tracie Strahan reports.

City health officials say conducting the widely used PCR diagnostic tests on that many people before Sept. 10 be hampered by lab capacity issues -- a concern that will only mount as labs become flooded with flu season tests later this year. They also aren't sure the rapid testing available is a viable solution for students.

Meanwhile, more New York City principals are asking for a delayed start to in-person learning this fall, adding momentum to growing calls in the five boroughs — and the nation — to stall the physical return to class. Brooklyn City Councilman Brad Lander argued that one way to lower the tensions between both sides is to move classes outside, at least during lunchtime, when students have to take their masks off.

"They at least for lunch and recess need to be able to go outside," Lander said. "Why can't we just get a tent and put it on the schoolyard, and then be able to turn that into our lunchroom?"

In response, the mayor said that he worried about bad weather days, but was intrigued by some of the outdoor proposals, and said he would address the topic more in coming days.

While New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy previously outlined a plan by which school districts can operate remotely all year if needed, he says any districts that change their plans on the fly, like Newark, need to list specific health and safety reasons for the shift. And they need a concrete plan to get to some level of in-person learning at some point during the academic year, Murphy says.

Amid the shift to an all-remote start for some U.S. public school districts, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the nation's top health experts continue to agree the benefits of in-person learning for kids, especially those in grades K-12, outweigh the potential COVID health risks.

The Trump administration meanwhile also continued its push to reopen schools for full-time, in-person instruction. On Tuesday, it formally (and quietly) upgraded guidance that labels teachers as "essential workers."

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