Too Many Deal Breakers: Prioritizing Safety, Equity, & Compassion

Priorities and Guidelines Circle, a working group of parents

August 6th, 2020

Too Many Deal Breakers: Why NYC Must  Prioritize Safety, Equity, and Compassion

As it stands, there are too many deal breakers  preventing the safe, equitable reopening of NYC schools.  Until the Department of E ducation and city and state governments can ensure the health and safety of students, teachers, school staff, and their families, including those in the hardest-hit neighborhoods [1] , we must not reopen schools across the board , and must instead focus on funding, infrastructure, and training to meet children’s academic, social, and emotional needs remotely,  with key   exceptions to address systemic inequities.

Parents and guardians demand that Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio and UFT President Mulgrew:

Why Can’t Most Students Return to School Buildings in September?

Dealbreaker #1: Introducing higher-risk behaviors (e.g., taking public transit, interacting with non-household members indoors, etc.) without the proven capacity for rapid  testing and immediate and comprehensive tracing   will reverse NYC’s hard-won progress against COVID-19. [5]   [6]   [7]

Dealbreaker #2: Given recent budget cuts, on top of years of broadscale financial neglect, the DOE does not have the money to pay for the high price-tag, resource-intensive safety measures that hybrid learning plans require. In a life-and-death scenario, cutting corners is not an option.

Dealbreaker #3: School buildings cannot be accurately assessed for safety and made physically ready in time, and the current process is neither transparent nor trustworthy . [8]  The same issue holds true for the buses necessary for blended learning to occur, especially that serve the more than 150,000 special education students receiving busing. [9]  

Dealbreaker #4: The nurses’, teachers’, principals’, and custodial engineers’ unions have all said that the DOE’s current plans are not sufficient  to guarantee safe working or learning conditions. [10]   [11]   [12]   [13]

Dealbreaker #5: By offering the same options to all students, the DOE’s plan does not illustrate how they are going to prioritize the students with the highest needs and those most impacted by systemic inequities. [14]  

Dealbreaker #6: Remote learning will be a reality most of the time for a vast majority of our students,   as even those who select "blended" in the current plan could be in person as little as 20%. of the time. Yet  the DOE is primarily focused on planning in-person logistics, which wastes scarce time, energy, and resources. [15]  

Dealbreaker #7:   NYC  does not have sealed borders, so it cannot escape the larger public health crisis that our nation faces. There are 13 states that should be issuing stay-at-home orders, but are unlikely to do so. [16]  Even within New York City, i n July, many neighborhoods were reporting infection rates above or close to the mayor's 3% threshold. For instance, several neighborhoods in the Bronx had July infection rates over 5%. [17]  

Reality Check : Experts predict that in-person learning, with its numerous rules and vulnerability to closure, will not provide the return to school that everyone is longing for. [18]   This is not going to be a positive   experience for children, teachers, or parents when we consider the social consequences of the health and safety directives. Consider: When a child is put in the isolation room, how are the staff trained to handle explaining that? How are parents expected to handle the emotions of the child sent home? How will the community deal with bullying, blame, guilt, and judgment? When we add in the risk that beloved teachers or family members might become ill or die, it’s clear that no solution is without risk of trauma. [19]   [20]  The truth is, in-person school  only one or two days each week fails at its three stated goals:

  1. It fails to get parents back to work.
  2. It fails to support consistent academic progress.
  3. It fails to meet social and emotional needs.




  1. Admit that the testing and tracing infrastructure is not sufficient and the necessary precautions are un sustainable  and potentially traumatic for children. We lack the infrastructure   to protect our city if, and most likely when, cases begin to rise and prohibit in-person learning. For many children and teens, the precautions necessary  to ensure a safe reopening, including wearing masks and remaining six feet apart, are anxiety-provoking and developmentally inappropriate , and they have the potential to create high-stress, heavily- and disparately-policed classrooms that further traumatize students. [21]
  1. Make the call now  to delay reopening buildings.   Instead of focusing on making remote learning a more robust experience that centers equity in our communities and builds our children up, we have engaged in an exercise in futility trying to decide whether we’re going to use model 1b or 2a. Teachers and parents are spending hours in meetings where they end up with more questions than answers because NO model is safe!   With minimal exceptions  (see #3) , schools should stay closed and students, teachers, and staff should stay home  to keep our school communities and city safe. [22]  
  1. Find the safest ways to prioritize offering in-person support to students who are most in need and most impacted by systemic inequities. While remote learning may not be ideal for any learner, students with disabilities, multi-language learners, and students who live in temporary housing face additional  hardships.  We propose using the safest school rooms with the best ventilation or tents as spaces to provide academic, social and/or emotional support for these students. [23]   The impacted families should be involved in the decision-making and planning of these services and opportunities.  
  1. Create opportunities to build relationships and provide social-emotional support within school communities .   According to the AQE “Roadmap to a Just Reopening”,   it is more essential now than ever before for school staff members to “establish and nurture relationships with each child’s family.” [24]  This is especially  important for our youngest learners, and students transitioning to a new school.
  1. Help families gear up and teachers prepare for creative, effective, meaningful, developmentally appropriate, and trauma-informed remote learning. Engage interested teachers in co-creating professional development opportunities for remote teaching to ensure that topics and methods are responsive to teachers’ needs. Offer learning opportunities for parents where they can see best practices and learn to troubleshoot technology issues. In addition, t rain  all staff in healing-centered, culturally responsive, anti-racist, and non-criminalizing approaches, including community circles and restorative justice. [25]
  1. With community-based organizations, develop safe and creative plans over time to support children’s socialization in small groups using outdoor space safely and effectively in all communities.
  1. Address digital and resource needs and inequities across the system . The DOE must:
  1. Expand Regional Enrichment Centers.  Share what worked and what didn’t and revise their design to make them even safer for staff and students.
  2. Acknowledge this historic moment and support schools in implementing the study of social justice across the curriculum and in each grade level.  Connect this to history and social studies, science, literacy, math, foreign languages, the arts, and community service.
  3. Stop having system-wide information meetings and offer targeted question-and-answer sessions.  Avoid having parents who are concerned about their children learning to read in the same system-wide Zoom with parents concerned about their children graduating at the end of the year. Offer information sessions at the Early Childhood, Elementary, Middle and High School levels and include time for authentic questions.
  4. Use a phase-in approach for any future in-person planning. There is broad consensus that school systems should structure their reopening plans in phases. [27]  Most countries brought in their youngest students, for whom remote learning is a particular challenge, first. In NYC, this design would make particular sense because, in most cases, families live near their elementary schools and they have 1-2 teachers.
  5. Stop placing COVID safety in the hands of school administrators. School administrators are experts at running school buildings. They are not public health or air quality experts. Develop a comprehensive plan for addressing safety issues in each school and demonstrate to families how these are going to be addressed, including if that’s even possible.
  6. Demand that pre-K-12 education is fully funded   and   issue a budget that details everything required to make schools safe  for sustained in-person learning so that we ALL can fight for what our schools need at the federal and state level. Insist on fully funding Foundation Aid. Implement revenue raising measures to stave off cuts. [28]  
  7. Fight for a waiver from high stakes   testing  so that schools can focus on meeting students where they are and moving them forward without this added pressure. [29]  Eliminate all city and district administered standardized tests (eg., MAP).
  8. Do all that you can to create health care for all, expand financial support for families in need, and provide accommodations for workers who need to do childcare or for whom in-person work poses high risks for them or their household (including teachers!). [30]

This position paper is a labor of love and collaboration of the Priorities and Guidelines Circle, a small group within Back to School Safely NY who came together to prioritize a safe, sensible, equitable, intersectional and inspired reopening of NYC public schools based on science. We will be adding to and revising as we learn new information, but we hope the essence of our views is clear. If you would like to help us translate this into other languages, or for any other inquiries, please reach out to us at

We would love to know what you think . Want to join our efforts? Fill out this form  to let us know.

If what we have written resonates, please share it with all of the families that you can, use it on social media, and/or any time you have an opportunity to speak truth to power. We are @safeschoolsny on twitter, instagram, and facebook.

Also, if you want to learn more about the science of reopening schools, check out What does the SCIENCE say? , a pare nt-planned event that took place on  August 6th, featuring Danielle C. Ompad, Phd an infectious disease expert tasked with the safe reopening of NYU, Kaliris Y. Salas-Ramirez, Phd a neurologist who discussed the neurological impacts on socio-emotional health and the impact of staying home, Prof. Jorge E. Gonzales, PhD FASM who explained what we need to know about airborne transmission and Cristina M. Gonzalez, MD, MEd who walked us through the differences in health impacts within urban communities of color. Moderated by Rashida Abuwala, the director of the Redlich Horwitz Foundation and a parent of a proud public ed student.

[1]   Data Check: Recent COVID-19 Infection Rates Vary Widely By Neighborhood

[2]   We aren’t the only ones. Have you seen MORE’s petition ?

[3]  Remote is not and will never be what in-person learning can be in non-COVID times. We reject Cuomo’s fantasy that schools will use distance learning in bigger ways in the future.

[4]   Some Students Should Go to School, Most Should Stay Home

[5]   9-Day Waits for Test Results Threaten N.Y.C.’s Ability to Contain Virus


[8]  “When we asked about ventilation, we were told by the Dept. of School Facilities that having our windows and doors open would be “safe” and “adequate”. Yet, we’ve had no assessment from an independent environmental engineer or DOE official to determine this. At no point have we been given any scientific or quantifiable data about how the determination was made that our airflow situation is adequate.”(Anonymous Brooklyn School Administrator)

[9]   150,000 NYC families who rely on yellow school buses wait for answers on transportation plans

[10]  If you really want to make your head spin check out the questions  the union sent the DOE on July 23rd.

[11]   Teachers union prepared to fight if NYC forces schools to reopen

[12] If there is evidence that we shouldn't reopen generally, why would we put families at further risk by reopening schools prematurely?

[13]   Officials Promise NYC Schools Will Be Cleaned Constantly When They Reopen. Custodians Wonder How

[14]   Bklyner Data Check: Recent COVID-19 Infection Rates Vary Widely By Neighborhood

[15]   How Can Schools Open Safely This Fall?

[16]   Key Metrics for COVID Suppression

[17]   Bklyner Data Check: Recent COVID-19 Infection Rates Vary Widely By Neighborhood

[18]   I n-person learning, with the necessary safety measures in place will not provide any of these as well as our schools were able to in years past. Ironically, a well designed lesson in a remote context might allow for more conversation and collaboration that will be possible in-person, “The models rely on unrealistic, developmentally inappropriate expectations of social-distancing and mask-wearing that, while necessary for containing COVID-19, are impossible and unethical to enforce for very young children and for those with special needs.” Parents and Teachers Agree: It Is Too Soon To Go Back into School Buildings

[19]   We have also paid a lot of lip service to our deeper appreciation for how difficult it is to teach. Now is not the time to show that appreciation by asking teachers to teach in a context that poses risks to them and their loved ones. It’s no coincidence that many, many teachers plan to select remote only learning for their children. They don’t think schools will be safe. Ruth on Twitter: "I hope parents are keeping an eye on the decisions teachers are making for their own kids in @NYCSchools. Many are choosing to keep their children learning remotely, even though we have to be in the building. that's bc we know what schools will be like."

[20]   Open schools, risk our health

[21]   Parents and Teachers Agree: It Is Too Soon To Go Back into School Buildings

[22]   Some Students Should Go to School, Most Should Stay Home

[23]  The DOE needs to also ready school hubs that can serve our most vulnerable children asap. Some Students Should Go to School, Most Should Stay Home

[24]   AQE, Alliance for Quality Education: A Roadmap to A Just Reopening & Just Schools

[25]   Health Justice Agenda

[26]   Some Students Should Go to School, Most Should Stay Home

[27]   Jumaane D. Williams

[28]   AQE, Alliance for Quality Education: A Roadmap to A Just Reopening & Just Schools

[29]   NYC councilors ask Albany to support another cancellation of state tests