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NYC Schools Will Return To Normal In September, Mayor De Blasio Says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New York City schools will reopen in full this fall with no option for remote learning. Mayor Bill de Blasio made the announcement on MSNBC yesterday.

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BILL DE BLASIO: You can't have a full recovery without full-strength schools - everyone back sitting in those classrooms.

MARTIN: De Blasio said the nation's largest school district will meet in person, five days a week, no remote option. New Jersey has similar plans, and other states want to limit remote lessons as well. The Los Angeles School District says they will also reopen for in-person classes, but they will keep an option for remote learning. Meisha Porter is the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and she joins us this morning. Thanks so much for being here.

MEISHA PORTER: Thank you. Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. What makes you and Mayor de Blasio so confident that New York City schools will be ready to fully reopen?

PORTER: Well, first of all, our schools have been the safest place in the city. And as the city is in the process of a full reopening, it's important that our schools be fully opened, too. You know, this is New York, and we are New Yorkers. Last year taught us to be nimble, and so we're going to just continue to monitor the health and safety. But we know our schools have been safe, and we need our children back.

MARTIN: What do you say to parents who are still really worried about the virus and may not want their kids to return, especially elementary-aged kids who don't have access to a vaccine?

PORTER: I say what we've said over and over again. You know, this past week, we've been at 0.3%, our seven-day positivity rate. Our schools are the safest place. And I've always said nothing, absolutely nothing, replaces the interaction and the learning that happens between a student and teacher in our classrooms. And so what I say to parents, as a parent, is we're going to continue to be in conversations. We're going to continue to make decisions around health and safety. We're going to continue to do those things that parents need us to do, that I need to ensure that we do, to make sure our buildings remain safe and we can get our babies back.

MARTIN: Is one of - is part of that effort a consideration about making the vaccine a requirement for staff and teachers?

PORTER: At this moment, we're not making it a requirement, but we are encouraging, and we're going to really work with the city to provide access for students and families and teachers, as we've done over the last couple of months. And so right now we're pushing and encouraging our staff to get vaccinated, and about 70% of our staff members are currently vaccinated.

MARTIN: But, I mean, wouldn't that help if you had 100%? I mean, children are required to show proof of immunizations, of vaccines, to go to school. Why not maintain the same line for teachers and staff?

PORTER: Yeah. Well, let me just correct - 70,000 of our employees are vaccinated, not 70%.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Much less (laughter).

PORTER: Yes. I would say this - that we are not in a place where we want to, at this moment, mandate the vaccine. We want to continue to encourage. We all know that folks have had concerns about vaccines, and we want to continue to encourage that vaccines are safe and that they are effective. I've been vaccinated, along with the 70,000 daily employees that have been vaccinated, and so we're not at the moment where we are going to require it.

MARTIN: Have you heard from families who've come to rely on being able to have their kids, their teenagers, working while in school? There's evidence that those with that kind of economic need are those who want to continue with remote learning or some kind of hybrid.

PORTER: I can tell you that I haven't heard that from families, that they want remote learning so that their teenagers can continue to work. But I know, you know, that may be a reality for some families. And one of the things that we're doing this summer is increasing access to summer youth employment, increasing access to our Learning to Work programs for our young people because we know how important it is for some young people to work, but it is equally, if not more important, that they maintain learning and have a connection to a strong and sound education. And we'll continue to do that through Learning to Work throughout the school year.

MARTIN: What about those students who have found that remote learning just works better for them? I mean, whether they are kids who have struggled socially in school environments, who have been bullied, or kids with learning challenges who appreciate just being able to focus away from other students in the classroom - are there any plans to come up with ways to better address their needs in the future?

PORTER: So what we're looking forward to is leveraging what we've learned from remote learning as an innovation in our system as we move forward and return, and I think that's what's going to be important for us.

MARTIN: Do you know what that innovation's going to look like?

PORTER: It's going to look like access to courses across schools and districts, breaking down district lines and walls, high-level courses, enrichment opportunities. You know, remote learning has expanded the universe of what schools should look like.

MARTIN: But we're talking about in-person opportunities when you talk about that innovation.

PORTER: Yes, but even the in-person opportunities - and we started this before the pandemic - in-person opportunities where students have access to courses, again, over district and borough lines.

MARTIN: New York City Department of Education Chancellor Meisha Porter. Thank you so much.

PORTER: OK, thank you. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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