Mayor Bill De Blasio and the Schools Commissioner Richard Carranza are determined to keep the schools open, as calls to close them in the name of public health intensify, arguing that many children have nowhere else to go. But there are other ways to work around that, Chair of the City’s Education Committee Mark Treyger and Speaker Corey Johnson say. The city could leave some schools open to serve the most vulnerable — while allowing parents who can to keep their kids home.
We spoke to Treyger last night about some of the challenges he is seeing across the city and in his Southern Brooklyn District. Treyger is calling for contingency plans, clear communication, support for principals and postponement of state tests.
Below is our conversation.
Bklyner: What are your biggest concerns right now?
Mark Treyger: Many of our students do not have access to a full-time nurse.
I know the city announced recently that they’re going to hire 85 additional nurses to deal with this, but they have not reached that target yet. And the last I was told that a day ago was about 35 out of 85. We have over one million kids and still not clear how many of the schools have full-time nurses.
What that means is that you have important health care decisions that have to be made in the school by a non-health care expert. And I’m very worried about that because the current protocol says that the principal has to designate someone to handle a child if they report if they were reportedly sick in the building and to have them quarantined. Concern about what, you know, expertise does the principal have to make that health care decision. Who is the person that’s going to be quarantined with the student? What if they have a compromised immune system? Do they have them all the protective gear that they need? And how immediate? Can we get the student help and services or translation help and services? There’s a lot of anxiety in schools.
Almost every hour today I’ve been getting a lot of messages from parents. Oh, someone is sick in this school. Someone sick in that school. And principals are not doctors. And they were given a number to call at the DOE, the Borough Health Director. These are not doctors either. And so I’m getting feedback from principals that the number that they’re told to call leads to 50 more calls. And I’ve asked them to have a good direct hotline with an expert from the Department of Health so they can get clear information out.
Bklyner: What about closing the schools, as many have called for?
Mark Treyger: I have been very measured in terms of, I understand that there are some people that want a complete system-wide shut down, I am saying that the mayor and the chancellor need to come up with a contingency plan in the event that there’s an order to do a shut down to serve the most vulnerable.
Over a hundred thousand students or homeless, 30,000 kids are in shelters. We have many children who have I.P.S that require medical services in schools. So we need to come up with a plan that while we’re addressing one public health emergency, we don’t create other, additional health and public health emergencies. So I look at some schools where there’s a significant decrease in the volume of students and staff, but you have a couple of sites open in each borough. I think the priority is to serve the most vulnerable, to make sure that students with IEP that require medical treatment, medical help get services at these sites.
This way, the system’s more manageable. We have health care professionals, nurses working full time. Also, the students do not have to take mass transit. We have bus companies that we pay over a billion dollars a year to. We have bus companies that we have to make sure that they’re sanitizing their buses and following all safety protocols. The Department of Education is supposed to, you know, check on that. And anecdotally, I’m hearing that there’s just sort of like self-compliance going on. OPT, the Office of Pupil Transportation needs to make sure that bus companies are checked disinfecting buses and cleaning buses. There’s ways of transporting the kids to these select sites, give them the care that they need. Make these sites also sites where children can get food and other types of services.
Because, look, if we’re moving in the direction of a system-wide shutdown, that’s going to last more than 24, 48 hours, a lot of kids are going to go through a very difficult time and we have to think about them as we’re being mindful of the general population. So I’m told that the deal we know is in receipt of my plan proposal. They’re considering it.
And I’m also calling to devise plans on home instruction. Not every child has Internet at home. So I know that they sent a survey out to principals and parents about their readiness to conduct online learning at home. I think they need to do more than just to think of more options other than online learning. Each child should be assigned a book that books already should have been given to each student. There are worksheets that we can give them, there are journals that we could assign. There are ways of providing home instruction that don’t require the Internet and the DOE needs, needs to be mindful of that.
My plan does require state approval on a couple of things, number one, the state requires the city to have at least one hundred eighty full days of construction. The state has the power to waive that requirement to make this accommodation, which I think should be made in light of this public health emergency. It’s 180 days. They have to go within the year to provide full day instruction in order to get state aid. But but they have waived that in the past when there’s been other types of. So. So that’s doable.
The second thing – Let’s let adopt the summer school model for now until we could until health experts say we could, you know, go back to some sense of normal. Because right now, this is not a normal situation. It’s not a healthy situation. And that’s. And so I think, you know, look at what other cities are doing. Seattle is closing for two weeks. Memphis just announced it wasn’t for two weeks. The Catholic schools in New York. I don’t think Brooklyn-Queens yet has spoken on this issue in New York. Staten Island, Manhattan, Sand Island are closing schools for a week.
So I think we need to have sites just to be made available to serve the most medically fragile. We have a number of kids for medically fragile who rely on schools to provide medical services if they are forced to stay home or create a brother at home setting for more than 24, 48 hours. I am worried about what kind of care these kids will be receiving, which will end up, by the way, and emergency room visits, which will put a strain, further strain on the hospital system. So I think we need to find ways to provide proactive primary care to reduce strain on the public hospital system
Another point is the state, in my view, needs to postpone the upcoming ELA state tests.
Bklyner: What about staff? How are schools coping?
Treyger: Look at one of my teaching colleagues I used to work with, still teaching. She’s battling cancer. She’s got undergoing chemotherapy. She is very thorough. She’s petrified. And she still comes to work because she wants to. I said can you provide accommodations? And they said, well, you know, people are told to tell it to the principal. The principal is not a doctor.
This is putting on it all on our principals, it is just it’s really, really getting out of control. They are not health care professionals. And principals themselves tell me that. And there are principals who are saying that we matter of fact. But I came up with the plan on a summer school model, I did it in consultation with people who are school leaders. They understand the gravity of the situation. They’re there at the front lines.
I’m also told that, you know, not everyone is fully equipped with the right equipment to deal with a case if a student is having showing symptoms. There are cases I’ve already heard where students have confided to the school staff that their parent has the virus. So now they have to be quarantined. But again, calls have to be made, the child has to be quarantined, that there’s issues about wh is going to be quarantined with the child until the parent comes. In some cases, the parent cannot come in as the parent is sick. So they have to find other ways. Some schools are paying for car services and they get help. I mean, there are so many decisions that are being made. And my concern is that you need. Someone who is a health care expert with eyes and ears on this. And we just don’t have it.
This is now really amplifying and kind of showing all the cracks in the system in terms of the amounts of just inequality, in terms of health care access. Many of our schools do not have a full-time nurse. I have been pushing them for social workers, nurses in every school. And now, you know, folks understand the gravity of that situation. And the more you have primary care in the school settings, the less strain you put on the hospital system. And if you listen to CDC and other health officials, they’re saying right now everything must be thought of to put less pressure on the hospital system at this time.
Bklyner: So there is nobody at the DOE that is coordinating their health responses for the schools?
Treyger: So principals are told to contact what’s called a health director. The health director at some of these Borough offices is not a licensed health care expert. They’re answering general questions. Principals need to speak to an actual health care expert. They need someone who actually is licensed and providing health care to make some calls and make some decisions.
It’s my understanding that there is no direct hotline for principals. So, for example, if a principal has a legal question, there’s a direct hotline to a DOE lawyer. Every principal knows it by heart. There is no direct hotline to a health care expert that principal can call to get to get Real-Time answers. They’re being punted to like 50 different people.