BAY RIDGE/CONEY ISLAND – Last Thursday night some 60 residents Zoomed into the Southern Brooklyn Community Roundtable on School Reopening, organized by Assemblywoman Mathylde Frontus (AD46, Coney Island, Dyker Heights and parts of Bay Ridge). The event offered those present – mainly parents and educators from School Districts 20 and 21 – an opportunity to hear directly from the Executive Superintendent of Brooklyn South, Barbara Freeman, D20’s interim Superintendent Dr. Joseph O’Brien, D21’s Elementary and Middle School Superintendent Isabel DiMola, and Maria Bautista, the Campaigns Director from the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), ahead of the new school year, which is tentatively set to start on September 10, and to brainstorm ideas.
But it looked like those who attended the Zoom event left frustrated.
During the first half of the Roundtable, as Freeman and O’Brien separately gave their opening statements, the chatroom was very active with local parents and school staff asking the same questions that had been asked numerous times all over the city in recent weeks.
Some parents expressed concern over how remote learners will be receiving 20 minutes per subject per day, and whether that would be enough. Others wondered about the schools’ ventilation systems, when school calendars will be released, and how lunchtime will be managed while keeping students safe.
Freeman did address the ventilation concern, by saying, “the health and safety of kids and staff are our paramount concern. We will certainly won’t have staff in rooms where ventilation is not up to code.”
She also answered a school psychologist’s inquiry about PPE to conduct evaluations given lack of official guidance, and how multiple school assignments are to be handled. Freeman responded that PPEs will be on site. However, the multiple school assignments had not yet been worked out.
“This feels like the same information we are given over and over,” a mother named Francine Almash typed in the chatroom. “The lack of details this close to the opening – and the fact that everyday the goal posts seem to be moving – is troubling.” Several parents responded how they agreed with her.
Later on, while Dr. O’Brien of D20 spoke, Almash again wrote in the chatroom asking what he is choosing for his son who is entering 5th grade, which went unanswered. Parents were dismayed over the “same vague answers over and over”.
Earlier that day, it was revealed blended learning will require two teachers – one in the classroom and the other for remote learning, prompting questions of staffing.
“The principals are in the process of scheduling their schools,” Superintendent DiMola explained. “They are in the process of looking at what teachers are going to be available for the in-person part of the blended, and what staff is available for the blended model, and they will be paired.” Superintendent DiMola admitted she could not say that there was a staff in place for every single spot right now, because it “depends on the individual schools, what their staffing capacity is, what their numbers are in terms of fully remote and blended, and what their individual budgets look like.”
Public school parents also still do not know which teachers will be educating their children, despite the new school year being two weeks away.
“Believe me,” the DiMola replied. “We all would like to let parents know or have let them know previously to today what teachers will be teaching their children. But because of this unprecedented time, we’re just getting approvals for teachers who put in for medical accommodation. We don’t have a static count right now, it’s leveling out now, and principals are now able to match classes with students.”
The last speaker was Maria Bautista of Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), who was coming off a press conference AQE did earlier that day where they called for Governor Cuomo to delay school openings, raise taxes on New York’s millionaires and billionaires, provide better remote learning resources, and include local communities in the reopening planning. Bautista seemed to bring that same rallying cry to Thursday’s Roundtable, though none of the parents and teachers disagreed with what she was presenting to them.
“We have so much money in this country, and we cannot figure out how to be creative,” Bautista said, adding that AQE had been pushing for outdoor learning which the Mayor had only expressed support of that just before Thursday’s Zoom event.
Bautista also shared how Governor Cuomo is planning to further cut $2 billion to NYC schools which would further harm public schools, such as not being able to put nurses in all schools during a pandemic.
In the breakout sessions, those in attendance were divided into groups of six. This was an opportunity for the participants to bring up their biggest concerns, and then relay those concerns back to the larger group afterward. While the same questions arose again, there were some ideas that were presented. One group expressed their interest to see the schools reopen on a later date, and another suggested setting aside state and Regent exams due to the enormous stress both students and teachers will be on this year.
While the Roundtable might have seen more like a town hall than a community brainstorming together before relaying the ideas to an elected official, and other influential leaders, the parents and teachers of District 46 made their worries and concerns heard loud and clear. Even if their questions were a repeat of what many in Brooklyn, and the rest of the city, have been saying, they were still worth repeating as the start of the new school year draws sooner.
“We’re human beings,” one mother, named Robin, said towards the end of the meeting. “We kind of want to know a little bit more of what is going on. Not what’s being promised or what will be delivered, but more of the details. Even though we know they’ll be changing, just kind of a start, I think that would assuage some fears.”