How de Blasio Backed Himself Into a Corner on Closing Schools

He says that he has celebrated educators more than any mayor in the last 20 years, but Bill de Blasio has taken heat from all sides about school policy during the pandemic.

Camille Hunt walks with her daughter Ruby Holmsten, 4, who attends PS 316 after school in Crown Heights.
Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times

It was just hours before Mayor Bill de Blasio would reveal that New York City had reached a test positivity rate that would trigger the shutdown of the entire public school system, and he was coming under intense pressure to find a way to keep schools open.

A group of parents was furiously circulating a petition calling on the mayor to relent and promoted it with the hashtag #KeepNYCSchoolsOpen. Leading public health experts had loudly registered their skepticism of the city’s plan to close schools before indoor dining. Local lawmakers joined in, demanding that Mr. de Blasio reverse course.

But even as he put off announcing his decision for hours, Mr. de Blasio and his team were reaching out to union leaders and principals to let them know he would stand by his pledge to them to close schools when the city hit a 3 percent positivity rate. When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called to offer a strategy to keep the schools open at least for a few more days, the mayor rebuffed him.

By 3 p.m., Mr. de Blasio went before the cameras and made the decision official: Barely eight weeks after the system opened in an ambitious attempt to help the city rebound from the devastating impact of the pandemic, classrooms would once again be emptied.

An examination of Mr. de Blasio’s decision shows that, for all the apparent last-minute suspense, it actually was all but preordained. A mayor who had long fashioned himself a champion of the city’s educators — but who had lost the confidence of many teachers and principals over his halting effort to reopen the schools for the fall — felt he had no choice but to stand by a policy for closing schools that was among the strictest in the country.

The mayor had already pushed teachers by making New York the first big American city to reopen schools. So the mayor’s team worried that reversing course would risk a revolt from city educators that might have doomed the prospect of any in-person learning for the rest of the school year. And Mr. de Blasio hoped that sticking with the 3 percent rule would prove to educators, and to the city’s powerful teachers’ union, that he was still in their corner.

ImageMayor de Blasio said he feels a strong connection to educators and the public school system.
Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

It didn’t work out that way.

“I think there is a real sense among educators that this administration is not able to meet this moment,” said Paula White, the executive director of Educators For Excellence-New York, which represents thousands of city teachers. “What we are hearing consistently is just a complete lack of trust.”

The entire reopening process, from the summer until now, has so damaged the city’s links to educators that the president of the United Federation of Teachers recently told The New York Times he would work to alter the current system of mayoral control over city schools. And even the shutdown decision did not do much to restore the trust of many rank-and-file educators.

“I would not have been surprised if he had broken this promise, because I feel like most of the other ones were broken,” said Rebecca Overbagh, an elementary schoolteacher in Manhattan.

Adding to the mayor’s isolation is the fact that the school closures have also infuriated many parents whose children had returned to classrooms this fall and have been criticized by public health officials who said the decision was not sufficiently based in science.

In a news conference last week, the mayor acknowledged frustration from all corners of the city — including from educators.

“What we saw after September was a work force that wanted to be in the schools,” he said. “One of the interesting things I think has not been represented sufficiently in the public discourse is how intensely teachers felt the impact of being around kids again.”

“They felt,” he added, “it was their mission.” Indeed, some teachers and principals have lamented that schools are closing so soon after they reopened.

Mr. de Blasio’s decision to shut the schools dates back to July, when he was embroiled in a last-ditch attempt to gain political support from educators to reopen the schools. At the time, he proposed the 3 percent threshold to demonstrate his seriousness about keeping schools safe for teachers and students.

But teachers’ and principals’ exasperation with him had begun rising much earlier. In March, they questioned him when he hesitated to close schools even as the virus was spreading rapidly throughout the city.

Annie Tan, a special-education teacher in Brooklyn, said she won’t soon forget being asked in early March to make sure her fifth grade students washed their hands frequently throughout the day — only to find that her school’s bathrooms lacked soap. Ms. Tan said that was the first of many signs that teachers’ concerns were not being adequately addressed.

The mayor “has been completely disrespectful of all parties,” she said. “It would have gone a long way for him and the chancellor to apologize for what happened in March and take steps to restore things.”

By the summer, teachers carrying handmade coffins were holding rallies to protest what many said was the mayor’s playing down of their fears about safety in classrooms. Some teachers changed their Twitter handles to include the phrase “won’t die for D.O.E.,” a reference to the Department of Education.

Hundreds of principals who rarely wade into politics organized letter-writing campaigns to draw attention to what they said were enormous flaws in the city’s plans for part-time learning. They lamented that the city never adequately planned how students would actually learn remotely and in person, asserting that principals had to rearrange school schedules every few weeks.

Even when schools were open this fall, many of those issues were not entirely resolved.

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Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times

Communication was also a major point of friction. Educators said they were often not consulted about key aspects of the reopening plan and found out about crucial changes from the media, rather than from the city. The union representing the city’s principals, which typically avoids controversy, held a unanimous vote of no confidence in Mr. de Blasio in September and called on the state to take over the reopening effort from the mayor altogether.

It was an astonishing turn of events for a mayor who has long said that education is his top priority, and who speaks frequently about what he considers his deep connection to the public school system, through his experience as a former city public school parent and local school board member.

In an August interview, the mayor said he felt “solidarity with educators” and compared his track record on education to that of his predecessors, former mayors Rudolph W. Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg.

“I celebrate our educators all the time, that was not true for almost 20 years in this city,” the mayor said. “I don’t think the foundational mutual respect and understanding has been lost, because it has been built over such a long amount of time,” he added.

Though Mr. de Blasio’s effort to reopen schools has at times faltered, the push set him apart from big-city mayors who have continued to delay reopening as opposition has mounted in their own communities. The mayor has described reopening schools for the city’s mostly low-income students and their parents as a moral imperative.

The fallout of the mayor’s decision last week is not limited to City Hall. Parents spent days pleading with Mr. Cuomo to overrule the mayor and keep the schools open, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Mr. Cuomo spent last Wednesday looking for ways to allow the city to use different metrics to continue in-person instruction.

And the U.F.T., which supported the 3 percent number and encouraged the mayor to stick with it — despite a consensus view that the schools were operating relatively safely — is now facing fresh scrutiny from parents.

Sensing the blowback, Michael Mulgrew, the union’s president, has in recent days begun to say that he does not support citywide school shutdowns and would prefer a geographic approach.

But since that position was made public starting only the morning after Mr. de Blasio closed schools, the message appears to be a way for the union to negotiate in public about the next round of rules over school reopening, and perhaps to shield itself from further criticism.

Mr. Mulgrew has also sought to redirect anger about the messiness of the reopening effort from the union back to the mayor.

Now, the union leader, long skeptical of mayoral control, will fight to change that governance system in 2022, when its current extension expires in the State Legislature. Mr. de Blasio, who is term-limited, will leave office at the end of 2021. Mr. Mulgrew does not want to return to a school board, but will push for a version of mayoral control that gives educators more power.

Mr. Mulgrew’s position, which has not been previously reported, illustrates how frustration with Mr. de Blasio among teachers and principals has grown so intense that it could have major implications for the rest of this turbulent school year, for the mayor’s ability to implement education policy during his final year in office — and even for how the city’s next mayor might govern.

Under mayoral control, the mayor and schools chancellor, not an elected or appointed school board, run the city’s 1,800 schools. The union had considerable influence over the Board of Education, which ran schools before mayoral control began in 2002, and lost some of its power under the new system.

Mr. Bloomberg won mayoral control of city schools after a campaign focused on the school board’s ineffectiveness and occasional corruption scandals. But now, Mr. Mulgrew said, the union will no longer sit out the fight over whether mayoral control should be renewed by the Legislature, where the U.F.T. enjoys enormous sway, particularly in the Assembly.

“No single person should ever be in charge of our school system again,” Mr. Mulgrew said.

Mr. Mulgrew’s position shows how dire relations between City Hall and the U.F.T. have become over the last few months, even as the union continues to be involved in major education decisions, as it has been since 2014.

Indeed, early in his tenure, Mr. de Blasio showed his allegiance to teachers by signing a contract that has given them more benefits and pay — including a scheduled pay increase during the pandemic. Before that, teachers had worked for several years with no contract after talks between Mr. Bloomberg’s administration and the union fell apart.

Conflict between the city and labor unions is hardly new. But the fight over how to reopen schools has been driven to an unusual degree by the city’s rank-and-file educators, rather than just their union leaders.

In interviews, some teachers who said they once welcomed Mr. de Blasio’s approach to education expressed disappointment with his management of reopening.

“I was excited about him and I voted for him,” said Alexis Neider, who teaches at the Neighborhood School, a public elementary school in the East Village. “Definitely, my views have changed. It’s just failure after failure. The mismanagement of the schools in New York City during this pandemic, I don’t even think I have a word for it, it’s so grand, it’s so epic.”