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No Strike, and No Plan

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eye on the news

No Strike, and No Plan

New York City’s teachers won’t walk out—but talk of a work stoppage obscures Mayor de Blasio’s failure to plan for a successful school reopening. September 1, 2020
Covid-19
Education
New York
Politics and law

There will be no teacher strike in New York City. The leadership of the teachers’ union is not foolish; there has not been a strike in 45 years, and for good reason. The last thing Michael Mulgrew needs is a loss of the dues check-off privilege in a post-Janus world. Neither does he need to alienate political allies by staging a walkout in the face of a 1 percent positive Covid rate when other municipal workers have been reporting to work throughout the toughest days of the crisis.

Carefully leaked announcements regarding preparation for a strike vote—supposedly coming today—are simply the latest farce brought to us by the de Blasio administration. We’re being treated to this melodrama because the mayor wasted four months that he had to plan for a successful school reopening. By the beginning of May, it was clear that schools would not be reopening for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. The city had the entire late spring and summer to develop a working plan for September. To do so, it had to accomplish a few things, some easier than others. Given the strong possibility that a hybrid of in-class and remote learning would be required, and the lesser possibility that a new wave of infection might require the re-closing of schools, the city needed a demonstrably better approach to remote learning than the haphazard one offered last spring. To provide sufficient distance between students, school officials needed to think creatively about the use of building space, the surrounding outdoor areas, and the possible uses of other community facilities in the community. Above all, they needed to convince parents, teachers, and principals that it would be safe to go back to school.

Across the metropolitan area, suburban school districts and private and charter schools have developed workable plans for in-person learning, remote learning, or some combination of the two. While anxieties remain, the local nature of that planning greatly increased the possibility that the key to success—the willing cooperation of parents and school staff—could be attained.

Local planning and engagement was even more needed in New York City, with its vast school system, widely varying infection rates across many communities, and the sharp differences in residential density and transportation patterns. In recent weeks, various groups have proposed local solutions to the school-opening conundrum. Teachers and parents in the highly selective high schools have voiced strong opposition to in-person instruction. These students, high-achieving and highly motivated, could likely learn successfully from home without the lengthy commutes that many of them face to get to school. A school district in Brooklyn independently developed a proposal to phase in the opening of school, beginning with the youngest children and moving up through the grades as results allowed—a logical approach, given what we know about the virus.

By contrast, de Blasio’s approach has been to delegate to his central planners, letting them develop various models—students in school half-time, one-third time, or quarter-time, depending on the number of students in the building relative to capacity under social-distancing guidelines—and letting principals choose. The problem is that principals have not known how many students would show up, nor how many teachers would be available. Parents can opt for full-time remote learning, and teachers can seek medical exemptions from in-school teaching. De Blasio’s plan has also not solved the riddle of who will be doing remote teaching while most teachers are occupied in the classroom—or how students reliant on school buses will get to school.

This centrally developed plan, imposed on hundreds of thousands of parents and tens of thousands of teachers, is the opposite of what’s needed to build trust and compliance. De Blasio has been misguided from the beginning because he fundamentally distrusts local decision-making and engagement, seeing variety as synonymous with inequality. Because he believes that he alone has the interest of the poor at heart, he must control from above. Consider the case of the selective high schools. Had the mayor deferred to parents’ and teachers’ wishes and permitted complete remote instruction, he could have turned three large school buildings over to in-person teaching of thousands of lower-income students, or those with special needs. These are the very students for whose interests he claims to be fighting.

The city’s leadership void has allowed the most extreme and anxious voices among teachers to dominate the conversation. Union head Mulgrew has to strike a balance, making gestures that will placate his members while seeking some bargain that will avert layoffs and/or maintain retroactive pay raises.

As the city continues to fumble with its unwieldy school opening plan, hundreds of thousands of charter and private school students will either enter school full-time or under some reasonable hybrid arrangement, with the confidence that neither they nor their teachers will be at serious risk. Other families, with resources but no choices, will opt to remain in their exurban summer houses. Those without resources or choices will be punished most by the mayor’s failures.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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