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How N.Y.C.’s Mayor Ignored Warnings and Mishandled Reopening Schools

With unease growing in August about New York City’s plan to bring children back into public schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted that classrooms would reopen on Sept. 10, saying that he would not “run away and hide” from a challenge.

Educators feared that the deadline was too daunting, and they were proven right: Mr. de Blasio was forced to postpone the first day of school.

On Thursday, it happened again. The mayor further delayed the reopening.

The last-minute reversal angered parents and underscored a perception of Mr. de Blasio’s leadership style that has built up since he became mayor in 2014: He often mulls decisions until the last moment, keeping his counsel and discounting the views of advisers and outside groups.

Mr. de Blasio is hoping to make New York City one of the few big cities in the country that is returning children to classrooms during the pandemic — an accomplishment that would help to burnish the city’s image after the devastation of the spring, when many thousands of residents died from the coronavirus.

But for many weeks, he has repeatedly appeared to misjudge how difficult reopening schools would be, dismissing the mounting concerns from staffers who had been charged with executing the reopening plan, and who were pushing for a delay.

On Friday, Mr. de Blasio took responsibility for the whiplash that parents were feeling and explained that he had changed his mind over concerns about a teacher shortage.

“We’re going to make sure it’s safe, and so I ask everyone for some patience here,” Mr. de Blasio said in a radio interview on WNYC. “I do feel the frustration that parents are feeling.”

Mr. de Blasio has spoken frequently about being a public school parent and his concern for working class families that need children back in school. But on Thursday, he downplayed the delay as only “a few days,” and irritated some by saying public school parents were “overwhelmingly outer-borough residents” who understood the “realities of life.”

The concerns about a staffing crisis at schools were not new. The union that represents principals had been raising alarm for weeks.

With one week left until schools were expected to open on Sept. 21, Mr. de Blasio had announced on Monday that the city would hire 2,000 additional teachers. Principals knew they needed far more than that: more than 10,000.

Yet when Mr. de Blasio was asked if he was certain that school would open on time, the mayor appeared resolute. “Of course it will open,” Mr. de Blasio said then.

Three days later, Mr. de Blasio reversed course, making the decision after a three-hour meeting at City Hall on Wednesday with his schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, and the presidents of the unions that represent teachers and principals.

The union leaders warned the mayor that reopening on Monday would not work and that the city was “headed into a disaster,” said Michael Mulgrew, the head of the teachers’ union.

“We told the mayor, ‘If you open school on Monday, it’s going to crash and be chaos, and here’s why. Here’s the reality,’” Mr. Mulgrew said. “You saw he knew there was a real problem.”

Mr. de Blasio said they discussed a list of 20 separate issues during the meeting.

The principals’ union began to publicly raise concerns about teacher shortages in mid-August. The union’s president, Mark Cannizzaro, went further on Monday, saying that the mayor’s plan to add 2,000 teachers fell “woefully short” and urging education officials to be transparent with the public about the mounting challenges.

Under the mayor’s new plan, most schools will not open on Monday as scheduled. They will instead reopen on a staggered timeline, with elementary schools opening on Sept. 29, and middle and high schools on Oct. 1.

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat in his second and final term, has been known for his deliberative approach to governing. He was reluctant to close schools in March as cases of the coronavirus spiked, slow to enact police reforms after recent Black Lives Matter protests and cautious about when to reopen beaches and pools.

Even before he was mayor, Mr. de Blasio was known for taking his time. During Hillary Clinton’s Senate race in 2000, he was eventually elbowed out as campaign manager during the final stretch because he took too long to make decisions.

On Friday, Mr. de Blasio said the teacher staffing problem had grown more complicated because of shifting figures for how many staff and students would attend schools in person. Nearly half of the one million schoolchildren who attend public schools could end up learning remotely at home.

But it had been clear for several weeks that more teachers were needed. A report on Thursday from the city’s Independent Budget Office said the city needed nearly 12,000 additional teachers.

The staffing challenges were known to the mayor and education officials since at least mid-August, according to an official close to the schools reopening discussion who asked for anonymity in order to not damage working relationships.

“It’s been clear for a long time that we have staffing shortages,” the person said.

When concerns were raised to the mayor, his attitude, this person said, was: “You guys are acting like bureaucrats; just make it happen.”

It was not just the unions and members of his own administration that raised concerns. Members of the mayor’s panel on educational policy met with him during the first week of September to express their doubts about reopening, suggesting a fully remote start to school, except for schools that serve children with disabilities.

Those schools, along with schools for prekindergarten-age children and younger, will still open on Monday, which Bill Neidhardt, the mayor’s press secretary, said demonstrated the mayor’s “focus on educational justice.”

“This is the largest school system in the country, and even though we haven’t had help from the federal or state government, we’ve been able to keep our coalition together to deliver in-person education on Monday,” Mr. Neidhardt said. “The mayor is leading the city through all these challenges to deliver the best, safest education possible.”

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant, said Mr. de Blasio sees himself as a policy wonk who is not into the “nitty-gritty of being a manager.”

That model worked for the mayor at the beginning of his term. He instituted wildly popular early childhood education improvements in his first year and benefited from a strong economy, but the pandemic has changed that.

Mr. de Blasio insisted on Friday that if the city continued to keep the virus at bay, then all public schools would reopen by Oct. 1.

“Based on everything I’m seeing — based on how well New Yorkers have worn those masks and done the social distancing and fought back the disease, really in a heroic way — I feel very confident about that date,” Mr. de Blasio said in an interview on MSNBC.

But the new plan depends on hiring the 2,000 teachers Mr. de Blasio had promised, plus another 2,500 — for a total of 4,500 new teachers, or about half of what the union requested.

The city needs so many new educators because City Hall and the teachers’ union had agreed that educators should not be required to teach both in-person and remote classes, requiring schools to essentially create separate sets of teachers for each method.

Mr. de Blasio said it was worth it to figure out the logistics, instead of moving to all-remote learning like other major school districts across the country.

“If we wanted to take the easy way and cheat our kids, we could have gone all-remote a long time ago,” the mayor said. “We’re taking the harder path, but it’s the right path.”

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