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NYC Public Schools Can Hold In-Person Classes, Defying Trend

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 8/7/2020 Keshia Clukey and Henry Goldman

(Bloomberg) -- New York City’s public schools can hold in-person classes this fall, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced, paving the way for the district to become the only major U.S. system to open its doors despite growing unease among teachers, administrators and parents.

“By our infection rates, all school districts can open” with tight precautions, Cuomo said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Everywhere in the state, every region is below the threshold that we established, which is just great news.”

Parents of pupils in New York City have hours to decide whether to opt out and begin the year with all-remote learning.

While Cuomo said districts have permission to resume in-person classes, that doesn’t mean they will. For months, Cuomo has insisted that he has sole authority to decide. But it’s up to local officials to decide how and when to open, putting an onus squarely on the shoulders of longtime rival Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Of the nearly 750 districts, more than 120 have yet to send in a plan and 50 are incomplete, Cuomo said. He didn’t discuss New York City’s plan.

De Blasio tweeted “We’re committed to getting this right. We will open safely.” The city will learn Monday whether the state considers its reopening proposal complete, said mayoral spokesman Bill Neidhardt.

New York City’s system, the largest in the U.S. at 1.1 million students, is defying a national rush to online education. Officials have spent the past five months planning for a hybrid schedule in which students would attend school one to three days a week, depending on a building’s capacity. The rest of the time, the district intends to offer online learning.

Yet the spring’s scuttled semester had parents struggling to work and teach their children simultaneously, forced businesses to navigate those conflicts, and kept the virus-wracked country that much further away from normality.

Major school districts that have opted for virtual instruction for at least the start of the year include Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, Miami, Atlanta and Houston. But Cuomo said New York is ready.

“We are probably in the best situation than any other state in the country right now,” Cuomo said. “If anybody can open schools, we can open schools.”

The decisions about travel, business and education are being made against unrelenting pressure from President Donald Trump, whose theories on the topic aren’t always supported by his own health experts.

“This thing’s going away -- it will go away like things go away and my view is that schools should be open,” Trump said Wednesday on Fox News.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Health Chiefs Testify Before Senate HELP Committee On Covid-19 © Bloomberg Health Chiefs Testify Before Senate HELP Committee On Covid-19

Anthony Fauci

Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Bloomberg Television that day that there are places where schools shouldn’t open to in-person teaching. Testing for the disease needs to improve, especially in the speed to obtain results, he said.

New York conducted 70,000 tests on Thursday, of which 1% were positive, Cuomo said. There were five virus-related fatalities and 579 hospitalizations.

Cuomo directed districts to post their remote learning, contact tracing, and coronavirus testing plans online. They must also have discussion sessions with parents and staff.

“You need two things to open up the schools: students and teachers,” Cuomo said.

Prior to Cuomo’s announcement, de Blasio said he’d withhold comment until there’s a formal decision from the state.

He defended his plan for blended instruction by pointing to a survey in which 75% of parents wanted their children to return to school. The mayor had said New York City wouldn’t open schools unless the city remains below a 3% citywide infection rate over a seven day rolling average.

Schools are to be cleaned during the day and at night, with enforced social distancing in classrooms and hallways. There will be mandatory face coverings, and hand-washing and sanitizer stations.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents the city’s teachers, remained unpersuaded.

“Parents and teachers must be confident that schools are safe before they can reopen. In New York City that is still an open question,” Mulgrew said in a prepared statement Friday.

At the Alliance for Quality Education, a parent advocacy group, Executive Director Jasmine Gripper said the state has deprived districts of resources to open safely while also failing to develop effective online instruction.

“The lack of leadership from state leaders and failure to provide adequate resources to schools at this time has forced an impossible decision on parents, students and educators, pitting their family’s health, economic security and their children’s futures against each other,” she said.

(Updates in 20th paragraph with union official’s comment)

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