On Reopening Schools, de Blasio Is Right

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) and Richard Carranza, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, carry bins with supplies during a news conference at New Bridges Elementary School in Brooklyn, N.Y., August 19, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Pool via Reuters)
For the sake of the kids, teachers should get back to work, as other essential workers have done.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE C areful readers will have noted a few points of disagreement between this writer and the presiding mayor of New York City. I find fault with Bill de Blasio over his handling of the coronavirus, his management of the police, his decision to move hundreds of derelicts into hotels in my beleaguered neighborhood, and pretty much everything else he does. If de Blasio’s lips are moving, he’s probably saying the opposite of what I think.

These past two weeks, though, de Blasio has for the first time been standing as tall figuratively as he does in the stratosphere. He is taking action that is courageous, responsive to the citizens, and absolutely correct when he pushes the schools to reopen on September 10. “It’s going to be tough. We have to recognize there will be a lot of imperfections,” de Blasio said Thursday. “[But] we need to help our kids begin the pathway to life coming back to normal.” Hear, hear.

The devastating emotional, educational, and developmental toll the virus has taken on children in New York City is as glaringly obvious as the garbage, the boarded-up stores, and the sidewalk encampments of homeless people there. Kids need to get back in school, not just back to online school. It won’t be risk-free for kids, and it won’t be risk-free for those who work in schools, but the virus is something we have to deal with for the near future, and reasonable precautions can be taken to make the schools reasonably safe.

Moreover, lots of New York parents can’t go back to work, in many cases even if their jobs have now moved online, because small children are too disruptive and demanding around the house. New York stands for a certain idea of toughness and resilience; it stands for a prideful bustle of cultural, social, and economic activity; and it simply can’t continue in its present half-asleep fugue state much longer. Time for New York to get going again.

If educating our children is mission-critical to the kids themselves and to the country, as every teacher is always telling us, it isn’t obvious why teachers should not behave the way other mission-critical workers have done and simply get on with the job. Grocery-store workers, gas pumpers, truck drivers, meat processors, first responders, medical personnel, and even liquor-store workers have been showing up to work every day, across the country. They did so when the risk was far greater, in certain parts of the country, than it is today in New York City, where infection rates are so amazingly low that it’s fair to wonder whether the devastation of spring has left the city with something comparable to the herd immunity that Sweden may have reached. One day earlier this week, only one-quarter of 1 percent of city tests for the virus came back positive, or 95 percent below the 5 percent threshold beneath which the World Health Organization has declared it’s safe enough to reopen. New York City is now on a par with South Korea for managing the virus.

Yet Michael Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) that represents Gotham pedagogues, swears that even after detailed precautions have been promised, his teachers feel unsafe and will not show up for work on September 10 unless it can be proven that nobody entering a school has the coronavirus. New York City has 1.1 million public-school students and is currently testing only about 22,000 people a day, so this is an absurd, unachievable demand, and de Blasio has properly dismissed it as such. Teachers would have us believe that they are absolutely essential and also that New York City’s public-school students can get along perfectly well without their services indefinitely. They can’t have it both ways. Time for them to earn their lavish pay.

The subways that New York’s teachers take to work are going to be riskier places than the classrooms because kids rarely transmit the coronavirus. “In a surprise to pediatricians, teachers and parents alike, the virus behaves the opposite of what we are used to,” writes pediatrician Naomi Bardach in the New York Times. “Children and adolescents do not seem to get sick with Covid-19 as frequently as adults. And children, especially elementary school-age children, do not seem to transmit it effectively to one another, nor to adults.” Teachers may put themselves at risk by taking their masks off and chatting with colleagues in the lounge, but the risk from interacting with kids is minimal.

De Blasio has a narrow path to walk: Unions, especially the teachers’ union, are the core of his power, the New Yorkers who put him in office and who have largely supported him in the face of his many failures. So he’s trying not to be openly antagonistic to Mulgrew and downplaying the seriousness of the dispute. “Unions will always sound various alarms, and unions will say things sometimes in a very dramatic fashion,” de Blasio said last week, and good for him. His stance of resolve, after so much suffering, was even more welcome: “Sometimes people think that if you raise enough questions and doubts, folks will run away and hide. That’s not what I do. That’s not what New Yorkers do. We just don’t surrender.”

To try not to allow the disagreement to heat up into a feud, he’s letting his Department of Education spokesperson, Miranda Barbot, take the lead, but she’s saying all the right things. “The UFT is fear-mongering,” Barbot said this week, adding of the union, “It seems like they just don’t want to say the quiet part out loud: They won’t want to open schools at all for students and families.”

A strike led by Mulgrew would be illegal under New York’s Taylor Law, and Mulgrew himself would be jailed. Fines and other punitive measures would also be available. De Blasio should continue down the path he has set himself: to try to coax the teachers back into the schools. But if they let down their fellow New Yorkers in a time of dire need, de Blasio should pursue all remedies available to him and inflict as much pain as possible on his longtime allies in the UFT.

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