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New York City Postpones Start Of School Year For Most Students Once Again

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With just days to go, New York City has announced a second delay to the start of the school year for most students. Parents are having to upend their plans once again as the nation's largest school district faces divisions over staffing and safety in school buildings. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been following this story and joins us now. Hey, Anya. How are you? (Laughter).

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa. I think the description for a lot of teachers and parents is whiplash.

CHANG: Yeah, yeah.

KAMENETZ: This coming Monday was supposed to be the start of in-person learning, as you mentioned, in this district of 1.1 million students. With four days to go, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced today at a press conference that only the youngest students in 3-K and pre-K - as well as those with significant special needs, called District 75 - only them will be coming back on Monday, and the rest of our students are going to phase in by grade level between now and Oct. 1.

CHANG: And what reason did he give for this additional delay?

KAMENETZ: So the mayor framed this as, you know, abundant caution as well as compassion. Here he is at today's press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL DE BLASIO: We have got to get it right for our kids. They lost a lot.

KAMENETZ: But there are a lot of questions about the timing of this decision. You know, New York City's educator unions have, for weeks, been raising concerns over safety and staffing issues that the mayor cited today. And this is the second time, the first being just a couple of weeks ago, that the district has announced changes at the start of the school year just a few days in advance. And that was the frustration voiced by Tajh Sutton. She's a public school parent and an education advocate in Brooklyn.

TAJH SUTTON: In this so-called planning that's happening, we're seeing all these gaps because they didn't include families. They didn't include teachers. They didn't include students.

CHANG: OK, so what are the specific safety issues facing New York City schools right now?

KAMENETZ: Well, that's so interesting because New York City's coronavirus situation remains well under control. In fact, the CDC just released new guidance for safe school reopening, and New York is in the light green zone. That puts it far, far ahead of most places around the country.

However, in the past couple of weeks, what has happened is that teachers have started to come back to buildings. And that has solidified existing complaints about ventilation, about PPE. Seventeen thousand teachers have gotten tested recently for coronavirus, and 55 of them reportedly tested positive. Now, that's a very low ratio - lower than the city as a whole, actually. But there has been at least one school in Flatbush, Brooklyn, that had to shut down because they had two positive cases, and that makes people uneasy.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like tensions are really running high right now. You also mentioned staffing and budget issues.

KAMENETZ: Yes. Principals have been saying for weeks that they just don't have the people to cover both in-person and online classes. The mayor talked today about beating the bushes to hire 4,500 more teachers...

CHANG: Wow.

KAMENETZ: ...Somehow in the next couple of weeks, including possibly community college adjuncts, he said, maybe people that are studying education right now. And this is coming in the midst of an ongoing dispute with the governor over possibly withholding funds to districts around the state to education. And the city's Independent Budget Office also released an estimate today that said for schools to be fully in compliance with the stated plans would cost 32 million extra dollars a week. I don't know where that's going to come from.

CHANG: Wow. How is all of this impacting parents right now?

KAMENETZ: You know, parents are really tearing their hair out, Ailsa. I mean, information is kind of leaking out in drips and drabs. Whatever we else you can say, you know, over half of parents had opted into in-person learning...

CHANG: Right.

KAMENETZ: ...Although that's changing every day. So, you know, they're all having to change their plans - and definitely some disappointed kids out there.

CHANG: That is NPR's Anya Kamenetz.

Thank you, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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