Original article Eliza Shapiro for the New York Times.
Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would alter the rule that required school buildings to shut temporarily whenever two virus cases were detected, resulting in schools reopening and closing frequently. The closure rule has been extremely frustrating for many parents, who have said that every day brings uncertainty about whether their children will be able to attend school the following morning. Many schools have closed multiple times and sometimes have been open for just a few days before the next closure. The rule has also been intensely disruptive for educators, who have been forced to toggle between in-person and online learning with only a few hours’ notice.
However, not everyone is in favor of loosening the closure rules. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, has strenuously opposed any changes to the rule for months, arguing that the city’s schools were safe only because of the strict safety measures, including the two-case threshold. Mr. Mulgrew released a statement claiming that the city needed Albany’s approval to change the rule, but the State Health Department directly contradicted his message on Tuesday, stating that school systems wanting to change their reopening plans should consult their local health department and have a community conversation. Mr. Mulgrew’s appeal to the state highlighted his diminished leverage in the negotiations, in part because teachers have been eligible for the vaccine for nearly three months, and well over 65,000 education staffers have been vaccinated.
The city also gave all families an opportunity to switch from remote learning to classroom instruction for the rest of the school year, so that number may shift. Some students will get full-time instruction, while others will go in a few days a week and learn from home the rest of the time, based on individual school capacity. The city’s schools have had very low virus transmission in classrooms since they began to reopen last fall. In recent weeks, some epidemiologists and medical experts have told ProPublica and the education news site Chalkbeat that New York’s two-case rule was arbitrary and had led to unnecessary closures, and called on the mayor to adjust it. The closure rule was settled last summer during a period of intense turmoil between City Hall and the union, at a moment when it was unclear whether Mr. de Blasio would be able to reopen schools at all. The city and union eventually agreed on a host of safety rules that cleared a path for New York to become the first large school district in America to reopen schools for all grades. Mr. de Blasio has said he expects full-time, in-person instruction come September, though it is likely that there will be a remote option for some families into the fall. That goal will rest in part on the union’s cooperation and support, and teachers will no doubt play a crucial role in reaching out to reluctant families and encouraging them to return to classrooms.
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