NEW YORK (Reuters) – With only four days’ notice, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday delayed in-person learning at public schools for a second time for most students as the nation’s largest system struggles to find enough staff willing to teach in classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.
While virtual lessons via the internet are already underway, the start of in-person learning had previously been delayed from Sept. 10 to Monday, Sept. 21, for those students who opted in.
Now, only pre-kindergarten children and students with special learning needs will head into school buildings on Monday, the mayor said at a news conference. Elementary school students will begin Tuesday, Sept. 29. Middle school and high school students will start Oct. 1.
The delay came after leaders of the teachers’ unions contacted de Blasio on Wednesday with “real concerns,” according to the mayor, who oversees a school system that serves more than 1.1 million children.
“Although they acknowledge that some real progress had been made, not enough had been made, and more had to be done to make sure that things would be as strong as they needed to be,” de Blasio told reporters.
He said students and staff had continued to change their minds about their comfort with learning in person, making it difficult to plan to have enough teachers to staff every classroom. A total of 4,500 additional educators have been hired, de Blasio said, adding that he expects to announce the hiring of more in coming weeks.
Most other major school districts in the United States have scrapped plans to resume in-person learning for now. In Los Angeles, the second largest school district in the nation, and Chicago, students are staying home and using laptops to sign into classes.
Efforts in New York City, which in the spring was the U.S. epicenter of the global pandemic, are being closely watched. Its plans call for students to spend some of the week in schools and the remainder learning at home online.
The mayor was joined by leaders of teachers’ unions, who had expressed concerns about efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. De Blasio has sought to reassure school staff that ventilation systems are being upgraded, nurses are being hired, protective equipment is being stockpiled and access to testing is being improved.
“If we’re going to do this, we must make sure that we get this right,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said at the news conference.
The city had previously agreed with the unions that there would be monthly coronavirus testing of students and staff, with systems in place to send home classrooms or shut down entire schools if new COVID-19 cases are found.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)