By Peter Szekely and Maria Caspani
NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City’s public school system, the country’s largest, will delay the opening of classes by 11 days to Sept. 21 under an agreement with unions that pressed for stronger coronavirus safety measures, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday.
The agreement, which comes as school systems across the country wrestle with the pandemic and pressure from the Trump administration to reopen school buildings, would maintain the city’s plan for a mix of in-class and remote learning.
“What we’ve agreed to is to make sure that the health measures are in place, to make sure there is time for the appropriate preparation for our educators,” de Blasio said at a briefing.
In Los Angeles and Chicago, the country’s second and third largest school systems, students are beginning the academic year solely with online instruction.
New York unions, led by the United Federation of Teachers, had expressed concern that the city was rushing into its Sept. 10 scheduled start of the school year without taking adequate steps to protect teachers, students and staff from infections.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew last month threatened to strike, which would be illegal under state law, unless schools implemented a rigorous COVID-19 testing plan and other safety measures.
On Tuesday, Mulgrew and union leaders who represent principals, administrators and other school staff joined de Blasio in hailing the agreement.
“Our medical experts have stamped this plan, and we now can say that the New York City public school system has the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in America,” said Mulgrew, whose union represents 133,000 teachers and other education workers.
The agreement requires monthly testing of the system’s 1.1 million students as well as teachers and staff, officials said.
Also included are 30-day supplies of masks and other personal protective equipment in ever school, social distancing procedures, functioning ventilation systems in buildings and safety measures for busing students, they said.
Teachers would report to schools on Sept. 8 as planned to give them additional time to familiarize themselves with the safety procedures, as well as adapt their classes to the mix of classroom and remote instruction set for this year.
Remote instruction for students is due to start on Sept. 16, as teachers and staff continue preparing for the Sept. 21 opening of the system’s 1,800 school buildings.
“We’ve heard from our educators, we’ve heard from our school leaders, we’ve heard from everyone in our schools that have said we need some more time,” said city schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.
Under the “blended learning” plan De Blasio announced in July, students would spend two days at school and three learning at home, and then reverse the sequence in the following week.
The plan was intended to strike a balance between the safety of online learning and risks of face-to-face instruction, which educators have said is more effective.
New York, the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic when it emerged in the spring, has cut its infection rate to among the lowest in the country. Daily testing in New York City has yielded positive results of less then 2% and sometimes less than 1% for several weeks.
Reporting by Peter Szekely and Maria Caspani in New York, and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Editing by Richard Chang and Steve Orlofsky.