By bending to teachers union, de Blasio repeatedly fails NY schoolchildren

Mayor de Blasio’s decision to reopen the schools to preschool and elementary kids this week is a welcome first step on the road to normalcy. But it follows a series of avoidable missteps — namely, the mayor’s needless concessions to the United Federation of Teachers.

Combine Hizzoner’s foolish solicitude for the union with understandable but uninformed fear on the part of teachers and some parents, and an unfortunate theme emerges: Children suffered grievously owing to the irresponsibility of adults upon whom they rely.

The UFT’s demands have left kids dependent on a damaging patchwork of remote instruction, which began in the 2019-20 year and continued into this year. Meanwhile, many of the city’s charter, private and religious schools mounted effective remote instruction last spring and used the summer months to sharpen their online-education infrastructure and/or design safe procedures for in-person ­re-opening.

Their successes testify to what can be accomplished when schools are unfettered by union contracts. For public schools to move ­beyond the herky-jerky approach of the last six months and emulate private-sector progress, the mayor needs to start doing the opposite of what his instincts command.

He needs to truly lead, rather than mediate between competing demands — even if that means disappointing those he views as allies.

Despite evidence of the safety of schools, the teachers union threatened to strike in early September. The move was ­apparently driven by the union’s social-justice caucus, a minority with a hard-left agenda. New York state’s Taylor Law, prohibits public unions from striking, and the enforcement penalties are stiff: Striking employees lose two days’ pay for ­every day they strike, and their union loses the right to have membership dues deducted ­directly from their members’ paychecks.

Knowing this — and given the fact that the UFT has not actually waged a strike since 1975 — the mayor could have easily stood up to the union. Instead, he offered concessions that resulted in the same outcome as a strike: closed schools.

Had he been thinking strategically, he could have put the pending back pay due to teachers from a 2013 agreement and raises from a 2017 agreement on the ­table, to temper excessive union demands. He didn’t, saddling the city’s taxpayers with greater costs in October.

Oh, he also promised to not lay off any teachers through June 2021. What did he get in return? Nothing.

And unions got to shutter schools at a viral-positivity threshold of 3 percent, well below the 5 percent threshold recommended by even the World Health Organization. As a result, schools did close in November, despite a positive test rate of 0.0028 in schools. ­The real fears of teachers notwithstanding, these closings lack a scientific basis.

Experience continues to drive that point home: Schools haven’t been vectors for the spread of the infection in ­Europe. Nor have they been in private and religious schools that have been open in New York. Nor in suburban public schools. Nor the city’s own schools. Some parents, too, are driven by fear that runs counter to the facts.

The late August poll commissioned by Education Trust-NY indicated that black parents in the city school system were much less likely (34 percent) to send their children into school buildings for instruction than were white parents (84 percent). Across all races, 85 percent of those parents who said they wouldn’t send their children into schools cited fear of their child contracting the coronavirus; an equal number cited the fear that their child would pass the virus on to an elderly family member.

But again, we know that children are at a minuscule risk from the virus and transmit it at a lower rate than adults. Even as vaccines begin to come online, simply opening the schools won’t be enough. State and city educational leaders will need to make clear to parents that school attendance is mandatory under state law, and that there will be consequences if students aren’t at school.

Unfortunately, the city school system has been sending the wrong message on this front since March by failing to collect and report student attendance data and essentially ending the practice of student assessment.

It is time for the city to get serious about delivering the necessary education to all its students. Failing to do so will produce real and measurable negative impacts on students’ current and future well-being — including their health.

Ray Domanico is director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.

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