The largest school system in the country is making a push to send its students back into the classroom — masks on, hand sanitizer readily available — as the coronavirus curve continues to flatten and the infection rate remains low across New York.

“If I go back to school, I’m gonna go back to school for one day a week,” said Meril Mousoom, a 16-year-old student activist in Queens. “I’m not going to be able to take advanced math or French or Spanish, or any of the things that actually fucking matter…So when they tell me, ‘Oh, are you gonna go back to fucking school,’ what fucking school is there?”

Meril Mousoom and Martin Urbach

Hundreds of people convened at the United Federation of Teachers building near Wall Street on Monday evening to call on New York City to reconsider its current position to send students back into school buildings next month. The crowd was filled with teachers, students, parents and other concerned community members who aim to reduce the number of potential lives lost this fall.

The UFT’s current stance is that schools should not reopen in the fall unless adequate plans that ensure all classrooms are properly ventilated are in place to keep students and school employees safe and healthy. In a statement, the union said that without measures such as consistent rapid testing, contact tracing, safe public transit, community input, substantial government financial relief for parents and workers, and additional funding for schools, the plan would “endanger students’ and teachers’ lives.”

As the policy currently stands, public schools will offer a blended system of both in-person and online learning. Students will go into the classroom a couple of days each week, and then spend the remaining days in a virtual classroom. Alternatively, families can opt into an online-only schedule. However, as speakers pointed out, some students do not have the option to take online-only classes because they lack reliable internet access or devices despite city efforts to fix that issue.

“Hybrid learning is remote learning for the masses, but deadly in-person instruction for the few,” said Madi Coyne, an 11th grade U.S. history teacher in Coney Island. “I serve a low-income population. I teach immigrants, I teach DREAMers in and out of immigration court. I teach students who just arrived in the country in November. I teach essential workers. I teach survivors of gun violence. I teach students who are experiencing homelessness and they did their remote learning through a shelter.”

The crowd heard from several speakers before marching to Foley Square. Once there, the protest organizers laid out body bags to symbolize the potential loss the city could incur if schools are reopened. Anu Anandaraja, a pediatrician, told the crowd that many medical professionals such as herself are standing in solidarity with teachers and students against reopening schools. 

“Children transmit COVID,” Anandaraja said, and referenced the increased rate of children’s COVID deaths in Florida. “Kids end up in body bags like these. This is not about anything but human lives when it comes down to it.”

The teachers who spoke all reiterated that they would love to return to in-person classes, but they say that it’s neither a safe nor feasible decision right now. 

“There is nothing I love more than teaching music, said Martin Urbach, who teaches at Harvest Collegiate High School. “And there is nothing I hate more than teaching music remotely. It sucks. It is the worst possible thing to try to teach music on Zoom…But we are here. We will not risk our lives and health, we will not put our communities at risk in the name of an economy that is not working for the people.”

Richard Carranza, the public schools’ chancellor, has said that schools would be deep cleaned each night and HVAC systems would be upgraded, according to New York magazine. However, many teachers point out that not only are HVAC systems pricey and the education budget was just slashed, but many classrooms are not equipped with AC units at all, nor are there windows that can open and close. Coyne says her school, which is designated as Title I, is losing $360,000 and she was given a sole bottle of hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes to fight coronavirus in her classroom. So, though students are not getting the socialization and education they deserve, the alternative could be much worse.

“What they’re not telling parents is that returning to in-person school during a pandemic will be more traumatizing and emotionally damaging than remote learning,” said Frank, a kindergarten teacher. “Young children do not have the ability to follow strict health and safety standards. Schools will be like prisons. Teachers’ main focus will be on enforcing health and safety because one slip could cost someone their life.”

To close the night of protesting, two organizers read aloud the list of names of the confirmed 64 New York City Department of Education staff members who lost their lives to the coronavirus and made a final call to the city to keep schools closed if adequate safety measures are not yet in place.

“We will not let the racist DOE risk our students’ lives to save capitalism,” Urbach said. “We will not let the system weaponize us against one another.”

Correction: This post initially misspelled the name of Meril Mousoom.