For weeks now, I’ve been the unpopular parent on the playground predicting with certainty for anyone who cared to listen that our children would not enter a public-school building in New York City this year. And sadly, I may be proved right. For the second time this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio has delayed the start of in-person school, largely because of a staffing shortage.
New York City has done what seemed impossible in April: It flattened the coronavirus curve and now boasts a positive-test rate of about 1 percent. In theory, the low case-positivity rate might have meant that public-school principals and teachers would feel comfortable opening up this fall. Many do not, however, and the mayor has utterly failed to overcome the problem.
He could have spent the summer months convincing the stakeholders that staggered schedules—with some kids learning at home each day—smaller classes, and improvements to air-circulation systems, along with commonsense precautions such as masks and frequent hand-washing, would be sufficient for an on-time start. He could then have worked with the Department of Education to make sure that these precautions were in place and that teachers knew what to expect.
Alternatively, he could have decided weeks, if not months, ago to start the school year completely remote and announced that the city would gradually move toward in-person learning if conditions allowed for it.
But the mayor chose neither of those paths. He set deadlines that he refused to put in the work to meet, sowing chaos and ongoing frustration for families and teachers alike. How on Earth did he not foresee a staffing shortage? De Blasio has failed our kids and is teaching them a lesson about political leadership that I hope they never forget.
Our children have endured six months of hardship and fear and Zoom calls and canceled plans, and far too many have lost loved ones to this virus. The start of school, though, was a bright spot on the horizon for my family and so many others.
But even as I told my children that September 10 (the first first day of school) was right around the corner, I tried to manage expectations. As many New Yorkers have discovered since the start of the pandemic, our mayor has not demonstrated the ability to manage large-scale operations or the energy to get things done. To put it bluntly, de Blasio doesn’t know how to lead New York City. Even worse, he doesn’t seem to care. At his news conference on Thursday, he did not apologize for the delay and asserted, oddly and insensitively, that because most public-school parents are low-income and live outside of Manhattan, they “understand the realities of life” and are “not shocked when something this difficult has to be adjusted from time to time.”
Until last year, I was a political reporter at NY1, a local TV news station. I’ve known de Blasio since I first moved to New York in 2007 and he was a Brooklyn city councilman. I covered his long-shot campaign for City Hall in 2013 when he shocked the political establishment, coming from far behind in a crowded Democratic primary to win the general election easily.
It didn’t seem obvious to me in the early years of his administration that we’d end up where we are today. In fact, the mayor’s initial focus was on helping parents and children, as he came into office with one big ambitious idea that he immediately executed: creating universal public prekindergarten across the city. The program was widely considered a great achievement; for my family and so many others, it meant children could get an early start on their education and parents could save money they would have otherwise spent on child care. It was one of the few local programs that I felt very tangibly made my life easier as a working parent raising children in the city.
Yet de Blasio largely lost steam after he got pre-K done. And then he got distracted. He’d get driven most mornings from Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side to his old gym in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he’d have a leisurely workout before heading into City Hall at 10:30 or later. He decided he wanted to run for president last year and set off for South Carolina and New Hampshire and Nevada, often drawing only a handful of curious Democrats to his events, giving them his time and full attention—a striking contrast to how he dealt with constituents back home. At one point, two public-housing residents flew to Iowa to confront the mayor outside a campaign stop in Sioux City. They knew the best way to reach the mayor of New York was to go to Iowa.
In the early days of the pandemic, he dithered over tough but critical decisions such as whether to shut down the school system. He gave terrible and potentially fatal advice, encouraging New Yorkers in mid-March to get one last drink at their neighborhood bar before they closed their doors. He even squeezed in a farewell trip to his gym hours before it was forced to shutter to comply with a state order.
During the Black Lives Matter protests in the city this summer, de Blasio, who ran for office as a police reformer, tried to look away, claiming not to have seen the viral videos of police violently clashing with protesters. When an NYPD police vehicle drove into a crowd of demonstrators—a terrifying scene that was caught on camera—he initially defended the police. Former aides and allies of the mayor denounced him. Past and present members of his own administration staged a protest outside City Hall.
For now, though, New Yorkers are stuck with the guy. We have another 15-plus months with de Blasio, who isn’t term-limited out of office until the end of 2021.
There could not be a more important moment for capable and inspiring leadership from City Hall. Our city has been through hell. Yet he’s proven time and again that he’s not up to the task required. As some New Yorkers pack their bags for the suburbs or upstate, he says he’s not going to “beg anyone to live” here. His refrain throughout all of this has been that “New Yorkers are resilient.” We are. But we expect our leaders to do the work that allows us to pick ourselves up and help the city recover. We can’t do it on our own.
City Hall has had since March to prepare for the start of the school year. For weeks, the unions have been sounding alarm bells about safety concerns and staffing shortages. The mayor says that’s what compelled him to push the start of in-person learning back yet again. But the fact that there aren’t enough teachers isn’t something that happened overnight. It’s been a clear and obvious problem on the horizon for some time. The city’s independent budget office estimates the public school system will need nearly 12,000 extra teachers to adequately staff in-person and remote learning.
For some reason, I’m not optimistic that’s going to happen by September 29, the third attempt at a first day of in-person school for my children. I unfortunately predict more chaos for students and teachers and principals.
As I told my children, they are going to get a real education this fall. It just won’t be the usual school curriculum. Instead, they are being taught a powerful lesson about the crucial importance of voting and having a strong, effective leader at City Hall.