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New York City Schools Face Strike As District Plans To Reopen Amid Pandemic

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Of the nation's 10 largest school districts, only one is planning to open its doors to students. And that's supposed to happen just a few short weeks from now. But while New York City seems to have the coronavirus well under control, the same cannot be said for the city's back-to-school plan. NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports there are even threats of a teacher strike if major changes are not made before the first day of school.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: In any other year, Pam Segura (ph), who teaches high school in the Bronx, would already have her first week's lessons planned down to the minute. This year...

PAM SEGURA: I'm, like, genuinely confused about how that's going to happen.

KAMENETZ: She's supposed to teach English language arts both in-person and online. But she doesn't know yet exactly who, when, where or how.

SEGURA: I feel like I need, like, 25 different planners and different calendars. I feel like "Beautiful Mind," you know?

KAMENETZ: Teachers and parents all over the city are just as confused and even alarmed. A community meeting with Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza got heated and stretched into the early hours this week. Here he is interrupting a concerned parent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD CARRANZA: This is not OK. This is not OK. Please.

KAMENETZ: On the one hand, public health experts say community spread is low here, low enough to match countries where schools have reopened with precautions and without outbreaks. New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to reassure parents and educators this week that the city's plans are airtight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL DE BLASIO: Everyone is working together to make sure the PPEs are in place, the signage, the cleaning, the disinfecting - you name it. That work is going on literally every single day.

KAMENETZ: He painted school reopening as an opportunity for healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLASIO: And here is going to be a moment to bring back our schools and address what everyone's been through. It's been tough.

KAMENETZ: But Michael Mulgrew, who leads the city's teachers' union, is not yet in a healing mood. This week, he set new conditions for a safe reopening including testing every teacher and every student within 10 days before school starts. If those conditions are not met...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL MULGREW: The union is prepared to go to court and/or go on strike if we need to. Yes.

KAMENETZ: Why the standoff? Months into the pandemic, New York City is battered and weary. Teacher and parent groups argue the mayor waited too long to shut down schools in the spring. And they point to the fact that dozens of Department of Education employees have died from the coronavirus. Some educators and families say they don't trust the city's leadership to keep them safe now, especially in low-income communities of color that have been hardest hit by the virus, like Segura's in the Bronx. She lives with her dad, who is over 60 and immunocompromised.

SEGURA: If I have to go out into the world, I'm going to be exposing him to potentially dying.

KAMENETZ: She says her anxiety is compounded by a lack of details and resources from the city. And time is running short.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET MINER'S "MY FRIEND COMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.