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Teachers In New York City May Strike Over COVID-19 Concerns

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

New York City is going to delay the start of public schools. They're going to give schools and teachers an extra 11 days to prepare. Mayor Bill de Blasio appeared at a press conference this morning with teachers union leaders to announce this. The announcement came just as teachers were on the brink of going on strike. NPR's Anya Kamenetz is following the story. Hey there, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So does this mean there is no strike?

KAMENETZ: So it seems. Teachers and staff have agreed. They're going to go back into school buildings next week as planned. But they're going to have more time to prepare, and the city seems to have offered the unions enough assurances on the key issues that they were looking at - safety issues like ventilation, making sure schools have masks and hand sanitizer and other supplies like that.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And there was the question, you were telling us earlier in this day, a question about whether everybody could be tested in time for school to start. I suppose starting on September 21 instead of September 10 gives a little more time for testing.

KAMENETZ: So there's been some tweaks to that plan. And what they announced today with some folks from New York City Health and Hospitals is a monthly medical monitoring program where they're actually going to be testing a sample of asymptomatic students and teachers and staff members at each school every month. And that sample is going to vary based on the background level of infections in that neighborhood, actually.

INSKEEP: Why don't you bring us up to date, Anya, on the context in which all of this is happening 'cause it's quite dramatic. We're talking about the nation's largest city. Right? We're talking about an enormous school district and a plan to actually put kids physically in schools, not do remote learning as so many places are.

KAMENETZ: This is the only big-city school district, Steve, and the largest, obviously, in the country - 1.1 million children - the only one that's going back in person. And that had looked pretty unlikely up until this morning because there were so many strong objections coming from, you know, these folks here - here in York City, we lost between 20,000 and 23,000 people in the pandemic, whether you count, you know, actual or expected cases. And we also are dealing with a huge revenue crunch. So without federal aid or permission from the state legislature, all of these reopening plans kind of hinge on getting money that may or may not be there.

INSKEEP: Whoa. Do you mean it is plausible the schools would not open after all?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, they're going forth, really, on a wing and a prayer. There's a - an appeal to the governor and to the state legislature to expand the city's borrowing capacity. And without that - and you know, the hints might be that down the road, there are going to be municipal layoffs across the city to the tune of thousands.

INSKEEP: In any case, there's not going to be a strike, and there is a plan to begin school a little bit later than originally anticipated. And Anya, I know you've been talking with educators. What are they saying this morning?

KAMENETZ: You know, educators and parents, Steve, are just really tired. They are relieved. They are also exhausted by the uncertainty and the back-and-forth. Many, many people have been predicting this kind of delay, but they haven't been able to plan for it because it hasn't been announced until this morning, nine days before what was supposed to be the start of school. So I'm thinking teachers like Melissa Eaheart (ph) - she's a school librarian in Brooklyn. Her husband's a public school teacher. Her two children also attend public schools. And she's been waiting. She's been waiting to hear about busing for her son with special needs, about ventilation at her school, about the the positivity rates in her - neighborhood where her husband teaches. On top of that, they live with her elderly mother. Here's my Melissa Eaheart.

MELISSA EAHEART: I feel very trapped because, as a teacher, I see how unsafe these plans are.

KAMENETZ: And so the question now is whether the leadership, which came to this agreement, of the various teacher unions and educator, even custodial unions - they're involved in this - you know, whether they can turn to their membership and say, you know, trust us. This is going to work out. We're going to all figure this out together.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anya Kamenetz on this morning that a strike has been averted in New York City schools. But there are many questions remaining about a plan to open now on September 21.

Anya, thanks.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.