PUBLIC ADVOCATE CALLS FOR REMOTE LEARNING OPTION AS SCHOOL REOPENING NEARS

Sept. 1, 2021


NEW YORK: With under two weeks until the start of the school year, and as the Delta variant continues to spread, the city has yet to announce crucial safety plans or remote learning protocols. At a City Council hearing on the impending reopening today, Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams called for a remote learning option to be available to vulnerable students to start the school year, and lamented the fact that a lack of adequate transparency or planning has yet again created confusion and concern about the reopening process. 

"It's déjà vu all over again..." the Public Advocate said at the start of the Wednesday hearing of the Committee on Education, citing the administrative struggles of last year which he feels are repeating in the lead up to the reopening. "... The highly contagious Delta variant poses a new challenge to the vaccinated and the unvaccinated alike. It is imperative that the Department of Education have a clear, transparent plan for protecting students, educators, school staff, and their families before the school year begins. The DOE should also provide a remote learning option for students and educators who do not feel comfortable attending learning in-person; until students of all ages can be vaccinated against COVID-19 and the Delta variant is under control, students and educators are at risk in school buildings."

Public Advocate Williams focused on the failures of the city to provide a remote option, as well as ensure that proper precautions are in place in schools, saying "Thousands of classrooms have been cleared by the DOE as having adequate ventilation for safe, in-person instruction even though they do not meet the COVID-19 standards set by federal experts or recommended by building industry experts... and it is unacceptable with the amount of time the DOE has had to prepare for thousands of classrooms to be relying on open windows for clean air."

He also highlighted the risks posed with larger class sizes, saying "Many schools in New York City face a safety challenge the DOE has long been aware of: overcrowding... Mask mandates in school will undoubtedly help control the spread of COVID-19, but there are circumstances in which students and educators will have to remove their masks...There are also some students with disabilities, such as autism, who are unable to continuously wear a mask. With the Delta variant making removing masks even for a few moments a safety risk, the DOE must provide guidance to keep students and educators safe in crowded settings." 

In the highly likely event that there are COVID-19 cases in a classroom or school, the Public Advocate noted, there are inadequate procedures and guidances for quarantining and protecting fellow students and staff. This further points to the need for a well-developed remote learning process to begin the year. 

Read the full remarks as prepared by the Public Advocate below. Video is available here.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS
TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION
SEPTEMBER 1, 2021

Good morning,

My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chair Treyger, and members of the Committee on Education for holding this hearing today.

On September 13th, New York City is set to open all of its 1,800 public schools for full-time, in-person instruction five days a week. There will be far more seats filled than last year, when about 350,000 students opted into in-person learning at some point during hybrid schooling. While educators and school staff are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and students ages twelve and older are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, all students younger than twelve are unable to be vaccinated. Further, the highly contagious Delta variant poses a new challenge to the vaccinated and the unvaccinated alike. It is imperative that the Department of Education (DOE) have a clear, transparent plan for protecting students, educators, school staff, and their families before the school year begins. The DOE should also provide a remote learning option for students and educators who do not feel comfortable attending learning in-person; until students of all ages can be vaccinated against COVID-19 and the Delta variant is under control, students and educators are at risk in school buildings.

Despite repeated requests from students and their families, there is no remote learning option for this school year. Because all students, regardless of their ability to get vaccinated, are required to attend in-person learning, it is extremely important that schools are transparent about their safety plans and that the DOE is monitoring these plans to ensure that all possible safety precautions are taken. However, there is no policy in place to ensure that this happens. Approximately 1,500 classrooms are still undergoing ventilation repairs with no publicly set deadline for completion. Thousands of classrooms have been cleared by the DOE as having adequate ventilation for safe, in-person instruction even though they do not meet the COVID-19 standards set by federal experts or recommended by building industry experts-and at least 4,000 of these classrooms rely exclusively on open windows for ventilation. Ventilation is a key mitigation measure for preventing the spread of COVID-19, and it is unacceptable with the amount of time the DOE has had to prepare for thousands of classrooms to be relying on open windows for clean air.

Many schools in New York City face a safety challenge the DOE has long been aware of: overcrowding. At least ten percent of classrooms are unable to adhere to even three feet of social distance, the standard recommended by the CDC in schools, although it is likely that far more space is actually required to remain safe from the Delta variant. Mask mandates in school will undoubtedly help control the spread of COVID-19, but there are circumstances in which students and educators will have to remove their masks for which there is no clear protocol, particularly at lunch. There are also some students with disabilities, such as autism, who are unable to continuously wear a mask. With the Delta variant making removing masks even for a few moments a safety risk, the DOE must provide guidance to keep students and educators safe in crowded settings.

The city is shrinking its school virus testing program, with ten percent of unvaccinated students expected to be tested every other week this year. With the size of New York City's student population, this plan may invite scrutiny; Los Angeles, the country's second-largest school district, is aiming to test every student and staff member each week. At a time when the extremely contagious Delta variant is the predominant strain in the city, testing more students more often will protect our students, educators, and their families. Additionally, when someone in a classroom tests positive for COVID-19, only unvaccinated "close contacts" will have to quarantine for ten days; in elementary schools, when one student tests positive, the entire class will temporarily switch to remote learning. However, the DOE has not provided guidance for how many positive cases would trigger a school-wide closing, which is important for schools to know prior to the start of school.

When students have to quarantine, they will need to utilize remote learning while they are at home. Remote learning was extremely challenging for students and their families over the past two school years, particularly for students with disabilities and English language learners. We do not know if remote learning has been improved in preparation for its inevitable use. Remote learning will have a greater impact on those who are unvaccinated, who are disproportionately Black and brown students. With no updates on how the DOE is working to make remote learning better, these students will be the ones to receive the least quality education. We must have a remote learning option, for at least the start of the school year, as the stakes are too high and our children's lives depend on it now more than ever.

All students deserve an environment where they can learn with as little risk to their health and safety as possible. Of course, it is unfortunately impossible to fully guarantee that no student or educator will get sick at their school, but there is so much more that the DOE can be doing to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection. I hope that we can work together to protect our school communities and make this school year a success. Thank you.

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