NYC: We Must Stop an Unsafe School Reopening.

Quite bluntly, if we open NYC schools now with the NYCDOE’s plan, people will die. That simple. The schools plan is a logistical nightmare, our school buildings have crumbling infrastructure, our schools have been defunded for decades, and there’s no money for resources. Educators like me want to be back in-person, but not like this.

We haven’t mourned the dead yet. We haven’t sat down and reckoned with the harm, the violence, the inequity done to our communities.

1 in 2,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Over 1 in 400 New York City residents died of COVID-19. COVID-19 is impacting Black and Latinx NYC communities hardest.

At least 79 NYC schools-based staff died of COVID-19, and many of those were paraprofessionals who are majority people of color.

In my small classroom of 12 students, 3 paraprofessionals and myself, we had 14 deaths of family members and friends during the pandemic. As of now, and from what I know.

No one needed to die. We could have stopped all this.

And we just keep chugging away, like none of this death and destruction happened, is happening.

DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC!

I’m not putting 1.1 million students and their families in more danger, and I’m not putting my colleagues and our communities in danger, especially WHEN WE DON’T HAVE TO. When there are other options! It’s our moral and ethical imperative to keep each other safe right now.

Especially with NYC schools’ haphazard plan with a million logistical, budget, infrastructure, and staffing questions, especially in the midst of a hiring freeze, statewide education cuts due to the pandemic, and decades of defunding schools.

The NYC schools plan is reckless, and there are too many unknowns, like what do we do for students with disabilities? English learners? Even as simple as, what remote platform will students be using since most of a student’s time will still be remote learning from home? (There should be ways to support students of the highest need, but there are ways to do that without bringing all 1.1 million students, schools staff, and their families into school buildings and putting us in danger). Other schools have come up with more comprehensive plans, and specific schools have called to be fully remote only to be rejected by the DOE.

I’m not the only one highly skeptical and distrusting of the NYC Dept. of Ed. “plan.” Yesterday, due to all these questions and safety issues, principals from District 15 wrote a letter calling for the DOE and Mayor to delay school buildings reopening. This afternoon, the principals union came out today with a statement to delay school building openings. Shortly after, my teachers union, the UFT, the largest teachers union in the country, came out with a weak 4-sentence response supporting the principals’ position.

Will this kind of movement be enough to stop an unsafe school reopening plan? I hope so. There is so much at stake if we can’t stop this.

Today, in Sunset Park, where my students and their families live, where my school is, positivity rates for COVID-19 rose to almost 7%. Sunset Park is a neighborhood where the majority of residents are Latinx and Asian and where half of the population in the zip code 11220 make less than $50,000. The mayor says he’s doing a huge contact testing and tracing protocol in the neighborhood, but that’s too little, too late. It’s clear we don’t have the testing and tracing protocols in place to have prevented the spread in my students’ community. I can’t imagine what the spread will do to my school’s community if we were to reopen my school building September 10th.

I’ve spent most of my summer reading news constantly, writing, talking with reporters and community members about the schools reopening plan, and organizing with other teachers to get the resources and funding that our students deserve and to stop schools reopening if unsafe:

“I think every single one of us who’s going to be in the school building is going to be extremely anxious,” said Annie Tan, who teaches 5th grade special education in Sunset Park.

Tan, who declined to say what school she works at, added that multiple students in her class have had family members pass away from COVID-19.

“I’m not letting them go through that again,” Tan said. “It’s not happening.”

“Teachers and Parents March Against NYC’s Plan To Reopen Schools,” by Caroline Lewis, Gothamist, August 4, 2020

How can we trust the Department of Education will have systems in place for all 1,800 schools? When we don’t even have a nurse in every school? Or a counselor, or social worker?

I can’t even begin to tell you the conditions of schools buildings:

“My students’ bathrooms up till the beginning of March had broken sinks had no soap,” said Annie Tan, a special education teacher in Brooklyn. “How can I trust that all these safety protocols will actually be in place when schools reopen?”

“Teachers Push Back Against School Reopening Plans” by Meghan McCarty Carino, NPR’s Marketplace, July 2, 2020

(After writing this blog entry two years ago, a friend mailed me 90 rolls of toilet paper and eight gallons of soap! Hah! Thanks Cynthia!)

How can we trust the Department of Education to provide what schools and students need when we’ve been defunded for decades?

To actually reopen safely this fall, New York schools would need a lot more funding. There is just no plan that is feasible right now given the budget cuts. My school’s whole budget has been slashed. We have no money at all this year for materials. And keep in mind that we already didn’t have enough soap in our school in early March; we had broken sinks in our students’ bathrooms. Last year I had to buy my own air purifier for my windowless classroom. Schools have been defunded for decades, and that’s led to crumbling infrastructure, even cockroaches and rats crawling around some people’s classrooms.

“I’m a Teacher in New York. I’m Doing My Job by Fighting an Unsafe Reopening.” by Annie Tan, as told to J.C. Pan, The New Republic (August 5, 2020)

And how can we trust the DOE when they botched cases in March and refused to close schools?

Simply put, we just don’t trust the NYC Dept. of Ed to protect us. We don’t trust them to do all the safety protocols needed to prevent mass spread of the coronavirus across the city. Fixing all 1,500 school buildings’ ventilation? Windows, for that matter? Having student self-check their temperatures before coming into school buildings?

I went further in my interview with New York Magazine writer Keith Gessen, saying we can’t put the onus on our students, their families, and our staff, of deciding whether or not to come into school, deciding whether we want to take the risk of getting infected and possibly spreading COVID-19 to our families and communities:

Annie Tan, a fifth-grade special-ed teacher in Sunset Park, shares the same fear. “I want to be back in school when it’s safe,” she says. “But I also don’t want kids to feel in a year’s time that their presence killed someone. I honestly think that’s going to happen.”

“What Will The First Day Of School Look Like?” by Keith Gessen, New York Magazine, August 3, 2020

People keep talking about the socioemotional health and wellbeing of students. I want students to see others in person and know full well students need to socialize in order to learn. But what kind of socialization will kids have, sitting 6-feet apart from one another, desks all faced forward, not being able to leave the classroom for 5+ hours, eating lunch at their desks DURING instruction, with no recess? Wearing masks all day? Will students be able to hear me, hear others, with their masks on? And yes, all this is part of the “plan” right now.

Can we protect student mental health when there will inevitably be COVID-19 spread? From inevitable deaths due to that spread?

AND, when there are COVID-19 cases, and WHEN there is community spread, some student or some staff member will inevitably feel it’s their fault for bringing the coronavirus to their communities. And WHEN there is death in NYC, we won’t have time to mourn, just as we haven’t mourned the too-many NYC Dept. of Education employees who passed of COVID19.

A prerequisite of student learning, of educators being able to teach, is to feel safe and to BE ALIVE.

And teachers have been gaslit and made to feel crazy about bringing up all the concerns I’ve been talking about for the past two months.

All of this falls on our “leadership”: our mayor, our governor, our schools district, our union leaders. No one is leading. No one has plans that are workable. All of that’s been laid bare now, and we’re all dealing with that impact:

It’s been quite an emotional ride this summer. A lot of educators are going to be resigning, retiring, or taking unpaid leaves this year if we go back in-person to school buildings without the proper safety measures. I know a few already who have.

And, I’m going to say it: like many teachers, I’ve had to weigh seriously for the first time whether to leave this profession that has shown so clearly during this pandemic doesn’t love me back.

I am still hopeful that we won’t be reopening in-person this fall, and that we’ll have time to plan for student learning. Remote learning was terrible because we didn’t have planning time, but I’m hopeful we can stop an unsafe reopening in time for some professional development and time to collaborate on robust, good remote learning. And provide the Internet, tech, and other needs our students and their families need. (While, you know, also providing healthcare and cancelling rent and paying people to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19 and other sensible things that would kill less people)

And, I’ll be fighting like hell for the next month to stop this unsafe schools plan. Last Monday, August 3rd, the National Day of Resistance Against Unsafe School Reopening, I marched with other educators, students, families, and organizations who are feeling the exact things I’m feeling right now. I’m still talking with reporters and even going on radio shows with other educators to stop reopening. We will continue marching and rallying and acting because we have to, until an unsafe school reopening is successfully stopped.

New Jersey schools got the option today to go full-remote after teachers refused to go in, citing health conditions. Last week, after a 500-car caravan and threatening a strike vote, Chicago teachers won and will be starting their school year full-remote.

We teachers on the ground have been leaders in a vacuum of leadership. And I have faith that we will win and stop an unsafe school reopening.

It’s time to fight back and organize.

March for the Dead, Fight For The Living.

Published by Annie Tan

Annie Tan: Teacher, Activist, Storyteller.

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