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NYC Schools Chancellor Says Her Message To Parents Is Simple: Schools Are Safe

Students wave goodbye during dismissal at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 25, 2021 in New York City.
Michael Loccisano
Getty Images
Students wave goodbye during dismissal at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 25, 2021 in New York City.

New York City schools will reopen in full this fall with no options for virtual learning.

Mayor Bill de Blasio made the announcement during an appearance Monday on MSNBC, saying, "You can't have a full recovery without full-strength schools, everyone back sitting in those classrooms."

De Blasio said the nation's largest school district will meet in person five days a week, with no remote option available. New Jersey has similar plans, and other states want to limit remote lessons as well.

While the decision in New York is being celebrated as an important milestone on the path to returning to some level of normalcy from the pandemic, some parents remain fearful about sending their children back to in-person learning.

Meisha Porter, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, has heard those concerns firsthand, but says "our schools have been the safest place in the city."

In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Porter said that with New York City in the process of a full reopening, "it's important that our schools be fully open, too."

Porter said the city would not make the vaccine a requirement for staff and teachers, but said more than 70,000 employees have already received at least one dose. The city will continue to monitor the health and safety of children, teachers and staff, she said, "but we know our schools have been safe and we need our children back."

Interview Highlights

What do you say to parents who are still really worried about the virus and may not want their kids to return, especially elementary aged kids who don't have access to a vaccine?

I say what we've said over and over again. You know, this past week, we've been at 0.3% — our seven-day positivity rate. Our schools are the safest place. And I've always said nothing, absolutely nothing, replaces the interaction and the learning that happens between a student and teacher in our classrooms. And so what I say to parents, as a parent, is we're going to continue to be in conversations. We're going to continue to make decisions around health and safety. We're going to continue to do those things that parents need us to do, that I need to ensure that we do, to make sure our buildings remain safe and we can get our babies back.

Is part of that effort a consideration about making the vaccine a requirement for staff and teachers?

At this moment, we're not making it a requirement, but we are encouraging [staff and teachers to get vaccinated], and we're going to really work with the city to provide access for students and families and teachers, as we've done over the last couple of months. And so right now, we're pushing and encouraging our staff to get vaccinated. ...

But I mean, wouldn't that help if you had 100%? I mean, children are required to show proof of of immunizations of vaccines to go to school. Why not maintain the same line for teachers and staff?

... I would say this, that we are not in a place where we want to, at this moment, mandate the vaccine. We want to continue to encourage. We all know that folks have had concerns about vaccines, and we want to continue to encourage that vaccines are safe and they are effective. I've been vaccinated along with the 70,000 DOE employees that have been vaccinated. And so we're not, at the moment where we are going to require it.

Have you heard from families who've come to rely on being able to have their kids, their teenagers, working while in school? There's evidence that those with that kind of economic need are those who want to continue with remote learning or some kind of hybrid.

I can tell you that I haven't heard that from families, that they want to they want remote learning so that their teenagers can continue to work. But I know, that that may be a reality for some families. And one of the things that we're doing this summer is increasing access to summer youth employment, increasing access to our learning-to-work programs for our young people, because we know how important it is for some young people to work. But it is equally, if not more important, that they maintain learning and have a connection to a strong and sound education, and we'll continue to do that through learning to work throughout the school year.

What about those students who have found that remote learning just works better for them? I mean, whether they are kids who have struggled socially in school environments, who have been bullied or kids with learning challenges who appreciate just being able to focus away from other students in the classroom. Are there any plans to come up with ways to better address their needs in the future?

So what we're looking forward to is leveraging what we've learned from remote learning as an innovation in our system as we move forward in return. And I think that's what's going to be important for us.

Do you know what that innovation is going to look like?

It's going to look like access to courses across schools and districts, breaking down district lines and walls, high-level courses, enrichment opportunities. You know, remote learning has expanded the universe of what schools should look like.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.