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To reopen schools, do three things

Opinion

[This op-ed was originally published in the Daily News on May 19, 2021.]

Although our public schools are now open, hundreds of thousands of New York City parents are still opting for remote instruction.

As the pandemic fades, getting teachers and students back in the classroom is critical for our city’s future, but much of the public has lost confidence in government, including the public schools.

One recent survey showed that while as many as one-third of parents were either on the fence or opposed to sending their kids back to school this fall. Meanwhile, a majority of all the parents surveyed said no one from their school or the Department of Education has reached out to them to hear their concerns.

The city has to show all parents that the public schools this fall are not just safe, but are also the best place their kids can be.

To this end, there are three immediate steps Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter should undertake: insist that every school schedule parent open houses before the school year ends; adopt and publicize programs to guarantee academic and emotional/psychological intervention in every school; and create a small but efficient remote alternative for parents who still feel they need it.

While parent concerns are understandable, the fact is that our schools have been remarkably safe, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 precautions the UFT insisted on, including masks, social distancing, improved ventilation and rigorous testing.

Each school now has a team, including volunteer UFT members, who constantly monitor the safety situation and report any problems immediately to the proper authorities, including directly to City Hall. These teams will remain in place this fall.

Because of these safeguards, the infection rate in schools has been well below the citywide rate, and our most recent testing indicates that the infection rate in schools currently is less than one-quarter of one percent.

We have found that the greatest reduction in anxiety comes when people visit our schools to see how well they function even under current restrictions.

To help convince reluctant parents, the Department of Education needs to schedule parent open houses in every school — particularly those with large student remote contingents — in the next six weeks.

Parents are also justifiably concerned about learning loss and also the emotional effects of the pandemic. They need to be assured that our schools are prepared to take aggressive steps to provide emotional and academic supports for their children.

The city needs to create teams of academic intervention specialists and social workers/psychologists for each of its 1,800 public schools. The teams would provide pull-out programs for children needing additional instruction, professional collaboration with teachers on instruction and coping strategies, and individual and group therapy for students.

We also have a unique opportunity to deal with the issue of New York City class sizes, which are among the highest in the metropolitan area. Using new federal resources, the UFT has recommended that the city create a pilot program to dramatically lower — by as much as one-third — class sizes in 100 of the city’s neediest schools.

Because many experts on the subject believe class-size reduction is most effective when dramatic rather than piecemeal, the program would cut class sizes in the affected schools by one-third: Pre-K classes would be capped at 12, classes that currently have 25 students would be reduced to 17 or 18, classes with 30 students would see a drop to 20, and 34-student classes would be reduced to 25.

Reductions like this would be a powerful incentive for parents to choose in-person public classrooms in the affected schools, and provide important guidance on ways to eventually extend these kinds of reductions to the rest of the schools in the system.

Finally, while remote instruction has fallen short for the great majority of our students, the Department of Education also needs to recognize that it has been successful for a small group of families. Because of the pandemic, distanced learning is now a part of K-12 education around the country, and keeping this option open for a limited number of parents will be important for maintaining the public schools as the key education resource for all families.

But rather than dumping this instructional responsibility on 1,800 principals, the city should set up remote academies in every borough with specially prepared teachers and reliable tech support. Students across the city could use these resources for either full-time or part-time instruction, particularly in specialized subjects.

Teachers know that as a city and society we need to have schools fully open this fall. But it won’t happen unless the city starts now to convince parents that the public schools are not just safe, but are also the best alternative.