[This op-ed was originally published in the Daily News on June 26, 2020.]
Teachers, parents — even students — are looking forward to returning to school buildings this fall. But new federal funds, now being held up in Washington, are the only possible way New York City will be able to invest in the protective measures and staff required for schools to safely re-open in September — even on a limited basis.
Our system is facing a double challenge: dealing with the devastating economic impact of COVID-19 on city and state budgets, and bringing back in-person schooling while maintaining social distance.
The pandemic has crippled our economy. Taxes and other revenues are well below pre-coronavirus projections. The result is that rather than increased resources, state and city budgets for the coming year include potential cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars to public services, including schools.
There have been plenty of corporate rescue missions. Airlines, oil companies and even hospital chains with large surpluses have been the beneficiaries of multi-billion-dollar federal bailouts.
Our states and cities — not to mention our children — deserve their own rescue measures.
The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the HEROES Act, which would send more than $900 billion to cities and states to help re-open their communities and re-start their economies, including $90 billion for public schools.
But despite the work of our local and national union to round up Republican votes, and the efforts of New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring the issue to the floor.
If the Republican leadership kills the HEROES Act, we will be looking at fewer teachers and support personnel for September and dramatically less money for safety measures.
Here's why these funds are necessary:
The average classroom in New York City public schools is only about 800 square feet. No more than 10 children — one-half to one-third of the normal class size — can fit into such a space while observing the social distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
To safely re-open, most schools will have to create two or even three cohorts of children who would rotate between in-school and remote instruction on a regular basis. This will create major logistical challenges for food service, transportation and cleaning services, not to mention huge child-care problems for thousands of families as adults return to the workplace.
Given the increased number of classes and the necessity of continuing some remote learning, more teachers may be necessary. Fewer children per bus may mean more bus routes. Daily deep cleaning of the schools will cost tens of millions of dollars not now in the budget.
Additional spending will also be needed for protective equipment, including masks for children, and every building will need a nurse (traditionally not all schools have one). Just as important will be social workers and other mental health professionals who can help children deal with the emotional trauma caused by the pandemic.
While the virus has decisively declined in New York, we cannot afford to relax our vigilance. Florida, Texas, Arizona are seeing surges in cases and hospitalizations, and so is California, which initially took strong measures to enforce social distancing, only to backslide when people became impatient and complacent. China is already re-imposing protective measures as the virus is re-emerging there.
No one thinks the remote learning program our teachers patched together this spring with virtually no training has worked perfectly, but it has kept learning alive for our kids. It has also played a critical role in limiting the spread and the lethality of the coronavirus, which still killed dozens of Education Department employees, including 67 teachers and other UFT members.
If necessary, remote learning can continue in September. Without necessary — and expensive — safety measures, re-opening of our school buildings will pose an unacceptable risk for our children, our staff and their families. Which choice will we make?