We can lose a couple weeks’ pay without falling into bankruptcy. But that isn’t true for many of our fellow teachers, three-quarters of whom are women. In 2019, the median rent takes up 65 percent of a first-year teacher’s salary and 42.5 percent of the average teacher’s salary.
But the alternative to striking might be worse. Teachers in the city are already familiar with the health costs of the coronavirus. Several of our colleagues got sick in the spring. Some of our students did too. One reported having a temperature of 104 degrees. The family of another student got so sick that she was forced to be a full-time caretaker, for both of her parents and her younger sibling. Several had parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles die from the virus.
New York City teachers have heard the horror stories from states with schools that have opened before they were ready. The city’s case rate may be low now, but to presume that COVID-19 can’t resurge here, when a “second wave” has already begun in Europe, is reckless beyond belief. Who will be hit the hardest? The families who have disproportionately shouldered the suffering of the pandemic already.
Teachers, more than anyone else, know that students need to socialize and that they do best when they can receive individualized support. But the city’s blended learning plan—where students attend in-person classes one to three days a week—falls far short of being the “best academic year NYC has ever had,” as Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in a tweet. Even in the best-case scenario, in which schools open and no one gets sick, most teachers will have to wing it. The city has provided little preparation or training for how to safely teach in person, or for the remote-learning portion of the week, which will consume a minimum of 40 percent of each child’s school experience. And the worst-case scenario? Few officials seem willing to honestly reckon with that.
We can’t speak for all teachers, but we know what would make us comfortable to go back. Slow down and give teachers and families real, detailed, concrete plans and protocols, with measures for transparency about results and accountability for failures. The teachers union recently released its safety plan, developed with the input of health experts. It calls for mandatory testing for students and teachers and includes numerous specific items that would make an individual school safe to inhabit again, including proper ventilation, a nurse at the school, and ample protective equipment. Until the education department has come up with a comparable plan or adopts the union’s, school buildings need to stay closed.
Teachers can start remote instruction right away, and do it well if the city provides the resources and training we need. Once a school building meets the standards, students should return slowly. Mark Treyger, the chair of the city council’s education committee and a former educator, shared a smart plan for a phased reopening: Start by sending back to school full-time the youngest children and those most in need of in-person support, using additional space to allow for proper social distancing, and keep high schools closed until the city knows it can keep transmission low. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams crafted a similarly phased proposal that was lauded across social media.