NEW YORK – New York City postponed students' return to classrooms by more than a week to keep working on coronavirus safety precautions, announcing the delay Tuesday after teachers said they might OK a strike over the city's drive to open schools.
The change came nine days before the nation's largest public school system was set to resume teaching students face-to-face.
Now, instead of starting a mix of in-person and remote learning on Sept. 10, the city's more than 1 million public school students will start remote-only classes Sept. 16. In-school instruction will begin Sept. 21.
“It is a revision that still allows us to keep things moving forward on a tight timeline, but with additional preparation time,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
That time is to be spent finishing virus-safety steps that were already planned and working out some new provisions, including random testing of 10% to 20% of all students and staffers per month. That's intended to get a handle on whether people without symptoms might be in schools and potentially infectious.
City officials had emphasized for weeks that schools were making extensive preparations and would reopen safely Sept. 10. But de Blasio faced growing pushback from teachers, principals and some parents and politicians.
The teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers, had said Monday it was negotiating with the city but could authorize a strike vote if no deal was reached by Tuesday afternoon, though New York state bars teachers and other public employees from striking.
By Tuesday morning, the heads of the teachers' and other school unions joined de Blasio to herald the new agreement. He said it addressed “real concerns that have been raised about how to do things the right way, how to do them the safe, healthy way."
UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the new plan represented “the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in the United States of America."
The plan got a thumbs-up from 82% of UFT delegates at a meeting later Tuesday, the union said.
Still, some teachers and parents said more needed to be done to ensure safety.
“A 10-day delay doesn’t do that. Random testing doesn’t do that,” said Madeline Borrelli, a city public school teacher who joined scores of parents and educators a protest march in Brooklyn on Tuesday. “What we need is a delay, fully remote.”
As a Brooklyn public school parent herself, Borrelli said she was worried for “the safety of not only our staff but our families and communities.”
She isn't the only one. Over 360,000 students’ families have opted for remote-only learning for their kids.
Yet other parents are frustrated by the delay in returning New York City children to classrooms for the first time since March 13.
Psychologist Dr. Adam Bloom and his wife both have government jobs that were deemed essential in the pandemic.
“If it was safe enough” for essential employees from police to health professionals to grocery store clerks to go in to work, Bloom says, "now it's time for the teachers.”
“These kids, come next week, they need their essential workers,” said Bloom, whose 9-year-old daughter is starting fourth grade. He's concerned about children her age missing the face-to-face instruction, socialization and structure of school.
The mayor, a Democrat, said he empathized with parents eager for schools to reopen, but he cast the delay as “a very modest change to resolve outstanding issues so we can all move forward together.”
De Blasio, a Democrat, emphasized for months that the city’s pandemic recovery depends on getting students back in classrooms in person after the coronavirus abruptly forced a thorny plunge into remote learning in March.
New York suffered the deadliest coronavirus spike in the U.S. before getting the virus’ spread in check in late spring, even as it climbed anew in many other parts of the country.
Even as other big U.S. school systems — including Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Houston — decided to start the school year with students learning remotely, de Blasio stuck with the city's plan for a hybrid reopening. It calls for students physically going to school part-time and learning from home the rest of the time.
De Blasio said Tuesday he believed the new schedule allowed enough time to resolve safety concerns. Mulgrew said that while there is plenty of ironing-out to do, “there is no longer a disagreement about what a school needs to have” to open and operate.
The city’s plan to restart schools already included mask-wearing, staggered schedules to reduce the number of students in rooms, supplying every school building with a nurse and asking all staffers to get tested shortly before school starts. The city dispatched ventilation experts to check out air flow in classrooms, and officials said they would work to make parks and streets available as teaching space if principals were interested.
The teachers' union had pushed for requiring testing — either for active cases of the virus or for antibodies to it — for all students and staffers who plan to be in school.
Representing a compromise, the random-sample plan will vary by school in the size of the sample, but parental consent will be required for children to participate.
Associated Press video journalist Ted Shaffrey and writer Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.