With less than three weeks before the first day of classes, educators are once again calling on New York City leaders to close schools and move learning online.
A couple hundred people gathered at Grand Army Plaza on Thursday to shed light on the unsafe conditions that persist in public schools and call on Mayor de Blasio to keep doors shut. Speakers placed an emphasis on schools in Sunset Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood that reported a 7 percent coronavirus infection rate last week.
“Our mayor is saying, ‘Oh, we’re all at 1 percent, we’re safe to open,’” said Annie Tan, a fifth-grade special education teacher in Sunset Park. “No. That is not equitable. There is no way to equitably reopen schools and not also target, unfortunately, the inequities that already existed to our Black and Latinx communities here in New York City that have been hit the hardest by Covid-19.”
Educators and community members first gathered Aug. 4 in Manhattan to protest the reopening of schools. Since then, little has been done to meet protesters’ demands for adequate PPE, proper ventilation and basic sanitary supplies in classrooms. De Blasio said Thursday that students will have the “safest school year ever,” pledging to ensure each school has a nurse and a month’s supply of protective gear. The United Federation of Teachers is calling for a comprehensive program to test students and teachers for the coronavirus and antibodies before school starts on September 10, which, if not met, may potentially result in an educators’ strike. An estimated 700,000 students are expected to soon re-enter classrooms for one to three days each week, along with about 66,000 teachers. De Blasio’s pledge does not, however, include this comprehensive testing program.
“It is shameful that now as an educator, I see my employer not care about us,” Tan said. “They don’t care about our concerns, they don’t care about students’ and parents’ concerns, they have not created a plan that works. We cannot go back to school like this in the fall.”
City Council member Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park, says that teachers and other people on the front lines should be the ones making decisions on behalf of the Department of Education. “The incredible clarity about how we need to move this forward is coming from the ground,” Menchaca said. “And it makes me think about democracy and the fact that democracy is dying before our eyes.”
Tan says there was a lack of deep cleaning and proper ventilation at her school back in the spring when the city first shut down schools. On Wednesday, 25 staffers at PS 169 in Sunset Park penned an open letter to city leaders that argued classes should remain remote until coronavirus infection rates stay below 3 percent in every New York City community. But as the policy currently stands, every student besides the 26 percent of families that chose the remote-only option, will return to the classroom between one and three days each week.
“When my kids went to the bathroom in March, we had broken sinks,” Tan said. “We had broken bathrooms, we had broken toilets. And we’re asking our students to go into these conditions that have been defunded for decades?”
Many Brooklyn schools, such as those in Sunset Park, are still without adequate supplies to help combat the coronavirus, critics say. And as schools prepare to reopen, with or without the union’s demands met, the city’s planning commission has also approved a plan on Wednesday to redevelop Industry City in Sunset Park, which would add over 1 million square feet of commercial space and up to 600,000 square feet of classrooms to the site. Menchaca has repeatedly spoken out against the plan, saying expanding Industry City would expedite the neighborhood’s gentrification and not enhance the lives of the area’s current population.
“With one exception, not a single commissioner thought to ask, ‘Jobs for who?’” Menchaca wrote in a tweet. “Scant evidence exists showing that Sunset Park working class families have benefited from the jobs at IC.”
Though the Industry City revamp will not involve any public subsidies, Menchaca continues to worry that this rezoning decision will cause a rise in rents and result in the displacement of the area’s working class and immigrant groups. The City Council will make a final decision regarding the rezoning at a future meeting.
“People are afraid right now,” Menchaca said. “The thing we need to do right now is not just shut down schools, but to bring the resources that we need in our communities, not just Sunset Park, but other places like Corona in Queens and other places that have been devastated with death.”