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NYC Coronavirus Response Exploits Teachers and Leaves Kids Out in the Cold

Governor Cuomo cancelled spring break for NYC teachers and students on Tuesday in order, he says, to distract students and keep them indoors to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Mayor De Blasio announced last night that teachers and students will be expected to work during Passover and on the Easter holidays. Yet low-income students continue to languish at home without technology even as the city pours money into Apple’s pockets, buying hundreds of thousands of iPads with city money. And the United Federation of Teachers’ response is almost complete silence and capitulation.

Francesca Gomes

April 4, 2020
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Photo: Anna Watts/The New York Times

In the face of enormous public pressure, Governor Cuomo was finally forced to step in and close New York City Schools starting March 15, superseding Mayor de Blasio’s unpopular refusal to do so. The NYC Department of Education immediately declared that all students, including the estimated 300,000 with no devices or internet connectivity at home, would be provided with the technology necessary to engage in online learning by the following Monday. 

Distance learning was slated to begin on March 23. The obvious flaw: the extremely high number of children from low-income families and those who live in temporary housing, who would not be able to participate. Chancellor Carranza announced that mobile carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile, the city’s “partners” as he called them, would be “stepping up” to offer connectivity so that every student in the city could access the online technology needed for education. Carranza added that the city estimates that about 300,000 students in the city need technological devices as well, and that the city would purchase these devices from Apple

This came at a particularly fortuitous time for Apple, as less than a month prior, the company had warned its shareholders that its stock would likely plummet in the face of the pandemic since its newest devices cannot be released

Predictably, the rollout has been a complete failure, and the city continues to leave its most vulnerable students without technology. At the same time, the city government is doing its best to keep one of the most wealthy corporations in the U.S. afloat by purchasing hundreds of thousands of devices from Apple using city money.

The city is purchasing 50,000 devices from Apple per week. Despite the awareness that New York  has up to 300,000 students in need of internet-capable devices and connectivity—excluding students in households where several children share only one computer— to high school students isn’t even scheduled to begin until April 6, and until then, devices will be distributed only to students in “temporary housing, emergency shelters, youth shelters, and foster care,” with absolutely no indication of when other students from low-income families may be able to begin any online schooling.

The distinction between students who have online learning capabilities at home and those who do not is being amplified and exposed, even as the city takes its time putting new devices and connectivity into the hands of students long disadvantaged in their education. While Carranza said that “If there’s any city that can launch into remote learning on a moment’s notice… it’s the New York City Department of Education,” this ludicrous scenario is proving to be far from the case.

The question remains: if the city has been so capable of closing this gap, exactly why have the most vulnerable populations of children been starved of technology this whole time?  Students from low-income families without internet connectivity or devices cannot do any form of supplemental learning at home, cannot complete online work, and cannot do research. They have always been at a serious disadvantage. But the speed with which the city was able to estimate how many children had inadequate access to technology makes it crystal clear that they were perfectly aware of these inequities.

This is, of course, nothing new. New York City has long been the least equitable state in terms of education funding. While the “Fair Student Funding Formula” used by the DOE, which the department insists “is based on the number of students enrolled at each school and the needs of those students,” a 2018 Chalkbeat article points out that “In New York City, schools with the greatest share of low-income students do receive slightly more funding. But according to Education Trust-New York, an advocacy organization that conducted the analysis, the funding difference is still not equitable given the size of the gaps between schools with the highest and lowest levels of students growing up in poverty.”

Keeping Schools Open, Hiding the Virus

This is just another in a long line of moves on the part of the city that make it abundantly clear that they have no regard for students or teachers and that “education” is not a priority despite their posturing to the contrary

Mayor Bill de Blasio and School’s Chancellor Richard Carranza did everything possible to avoid closing schools, based on the argument that schools operate as childcare and that the health of workers in schools and the children they teach was secondary to maintaining “business as usual.” Comments about making sure people could keep “going to work, earning their livelihood” made it clear that the city administration believes that the safety of children and teachers could not be allowed to interrupt economic profits.

Even then, teachers were forced to return to unsafe school buildings for almost a full week to prepare for the “online learning” that the city insisted all students would be able to access.

After a smiling Carranza told them in a press conference to “consider [Monday] a snow day,”  teachers were told to return for not one but a full three days for in-person “training.” The city issued assurances that the schools had been “deep cleaned,” despite the fact that an intense cleaning job couldn’t possibly be completed by any school’s small custodial staff on one day’s notice. 

Obviously feeling teachers needed to be reminded of their accountability, de Blasio admonished: “We need you. We need you. These children need you. These families need you.”

The three-day attendance requirement to train teachers to log into Google and upload files is predicated on the negative stereotypes about teachers that politicians have harped on for decades: Teachers will take any opportunity not to do their jobs; teachers don’t value the needs of their students and require accountability measures to do so; teachers are incompetent and unable to use technology.

Despite the fact that there were five confirmed cases of coronavirus reported at Brooklyn Tech high school, and two had been confirmed and reported by the mayor’s press conference on March 15, staff at the school were still required to enter the building. Apparently, enforcing “teacher accountability” was too important to allow educators to be trained at a different site than one at which the infection had definitely been spreading. 

De Blasio Treats Workers’ Lives as Disposable

All over the city, teachers were required to attend meetings in small classrooms to be trained in using technology for instruction, something in which a high percentage of them were already well-versed. No teachers were exempt from attending, and the teachers for whom this was most unsafe — elderly teachers, those with compromised immune systems, and those with sick or elderly family members — had to choose between losing valuable sick days they will need in the future and endangering their families. Pregnant teachers, too, had to make this choice, in many cases sacrificing days from their upcoming maternity leave to avoid putting their families at risk.

On March 23, Dezann Romain, a 36-year-old high school principal, died of complications from the coronavirus. She ran Brooklyn Democracy Academy, a transfer school serving some of the city’s most disadvantaged students. Like all other NYC public schools, Romain’s school had remained open, requiring staff to attend three extra days past the date schools were finally closed. De Blasio’s response? “There is unfortunately many different sources for which someone may have been exposed. The most important thing is for folks to follow the basic rules.” He seemed to have forgotten it was his rules that contradicted each other when he said everyone should stay home… except teachers.

Sandra Santos-Vizcaino, a popular and beloved third-grade teacher at P.S. 9 in Brooklyn, also attended the days of staff development, falling ill soon after and passing away due to coronavirus complications on April 2. Word got out that an as yet unnamed paraprofessional died of complications as well, but the Department of Education refuses to release their names or say how many DOE employees have died as a result of the virus.

This is, of course, completely in keeping with the government and corporate treatment of workers as completely disposable.  Healthcare workers are being forced to work without personal protective equipment (PPE) and are denied coronavirus tests, even when there is verification that they have been exposed to an infected patient. Furthermore, seeking out tests on their own to pay out of pocket is futile given the costs and lack of accessibility. Nurses report being treated as though they are “disposable.”

This is also occurring on a massive scale beyond health care and education. Ten million new unemployment filings have occurred in the past 14 days, revealing just how much corporate owners and other employers value their workers as human beings, despite the massive profits they have made off their employees’ labor.

Keeping “Dangerous” Kids Off the Streets

The argument made by Governor Cuomo to cancel the spring vacation, violating the teachers’ contract and adding days to their schedule without additional pay, was that students need to be kept occupied, lest they leave their apartments and spread the virus.  De Blasio then canceled the two days of religious observance that week, stating that teachers and students would be expected to consider the weekdays of Passover and Easter holidays regular school days.

Obviously, this will have no effect on the students without devices that enable them to engage in online learning, but de Blasio has a plan for them. His solution: the NYPD.

In the press conference when he announced shutting down the schools, the mayor had expressed great concern about the dangers of teenagers roaming the streets “looking for something to do.” “If police officers and other public servants see congregations of young people we’re obviously going to try to reduce that, space that out, if we see any nefarious activity, that’s where the police will come in,” the mayor said, reminding us what kind of teenagers he is concerned about.

“What our officers should do is go up and say ‘Hey, guys. You know what’s going on, coronavirus, spread out. That kind of thing.” The mayor then ludicrously insisted that “In fact, what our officers do in neighborhood policing all the time is talk to people.” Most children of color in this city would disagree.

“So it’s go in there… tell people spread out, be a little more careful, that kind of thing,” the mayor continued. “If kids say no?” asked a reporter. The mayor’s response was predictably evasive: “Let’s try the power of communication and persuasion; I think everyone knows what time it is.”  (We sure do, Mr. Mayor.)

UFT Leadership Capitulates Yet Again

The leadership of the UFT has continued a practice of shameful silence in the face of all of this. Despite the fact that it is the largest municipal union in the City of New York and has the untapped power of 200,000 public school workers behind it, it has long been content to stand by and watch the inequities of one of the most segregated school systems in the country even as its members struggle to serve the needs of their most vulnerable students. 

Even as the leadership took credit for the eventual closing of the schools, it gave tacit approval to the plan that put teachers at completely unnecessary risk, forcing them to come to schools against social distancing rules for bogus “training.” They refused to even suggest that the teachers at schools with verified COVID-19 cases should not have to attend.

Worse, UFT leadership sent district representatives instructions to try to quash the calls for a sickout that was quickly gaining traction in the membership. “A coordinated sick out will be interpreted by the DOE as an organized effort in violation of the Taylor Law and the Triborough Law… Please advise against,” union leadership said.

The union has insisted time and time again that teachers accept contracts with low raises, even agreeing to no raise for some school years, with retroactive pay deferred and even denied to some members. And now it is admonishing its members to work without pay in the hopes that this work will keep children at home, despite the fact that so many of these children have no access to this online education at all.

In a speech in which he told his members how “proud” he is of them, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said: “Now we are being asked to do even more. I know it’s not fair, but it’s not fair for a lot of people right now… Governor Cuomo believes public schools can play a critical role in keeping kids engaged in learning at home during this pivotal period so the virus does not have the opportunity to spread more widely in our communities.”  

At a town hall conducted via phone on April 1, Mulgrew warned of looming budget cuts, said there will almost certainly be excessing (teachers being pushed from their schools into the Absent Teacher Reserve pool of travelling educators), and reminded members of the need to fight for the budget. He praised one teacher who said she was exhausted from working 12-hour days, applauding her “dedication.” AFT President Randi Weingarten also told teachers that their undertaking of an extensive new workload “makes Michael [Mulgrew]’s and [her] job easier.” 

UFT leadership continues to encourage teachers, paraprofessionals, and other members to feel responsible for the safety of students and to therefore work hours of unpaid overtime each day, often to the detriment of their own families and children. Instead of looking towards militancy, their entire tactic is to convince the public that teachers are self-sacrificing martyrs. And the implication of Mulgrew’s constant references to the budget indicate that UFT leadership thinks that somehow, the perpetuation of this image will save schools from some of the worst cuts, despite all historical evidence to the contrary.

As the government and the wealthy owners of corporations put workers in danger and watch them die from lack of PPE; as teachers are forced to do unpaid work and are threatened with layoffs; as disadvantaged students are denied access to technology while Apple and other corporations profit off the crisis; and as corporations engage in massive layoffs in order to protect the profits of their owners, it is time for us to come together and protect each other.

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Francesca Gomes

Francesca is a teacher from Brooklyn.

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