Gov. Phil Murphy and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have marched in lock-step during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether in regards to mask mandates or interstate travel or remote instruction.
But there’s a new rupture in their mind-meld over how to best mitigate disease transmission. This split is not epidemiological but political.
Remember, in March both Murphy and de Blasio announced that there would be no remote option for pre-K-12 schools in September, decisions that have equal impact: NYC has 1.1 million students, only slightly less than New Jersey’s 1.3 million students.
We are declaring that all students will be back in school for full-time, in-person instruction come the start of the 2021-2022 school year. Next year parents will not be enabled to broad scale opt their child out of in-person instruction as was allowed this school year.
Here’s de Blasio:
One million kids will be back in their classroom in September — all in person, no remote. COVID is plummeting in this city I’m happy to say … it’s just amazing, to see the forward motion right now [and] the recovery that’s happening in NYC.But you can’t have a full recovery without full-strength schools: Everyone back, sitting in those classrooms, kids learning again.
And then came the Delta variant.
On Friday the NY Post reported that the city Department of Education is considering a remote schooling option for kids with immunocompromised relatives. This shifts de Blasio’s “full-strength schools” to something below that high bar. After all, “immunocompromised” is a sweeping category, covering everything from cancer to asthma.
Murphy has said nothing.
Question: Why can de Blasio back off the “no remote option” to something more nuanced that accounts for the rapid spread of the Delta variant? And why isn’t Murphy following suit even as he announced a new mandate yesterday that staff members in health care, elder services, disability services, and corrections will have to either be vaccinated or submit to Covid testing as often as twice a week and last week “strongly recommended” mask-wearing in schools?
Answer: De Blasio’s second term is up in January and then he’s done. Murphy wants to win re-election in November and become the first New Jersey Democratic governor to win a second term since Brendan Byrne in 1978. (Plus, word on the street is Murphy’s political ambitions are national, not limited to the top seat in the Garden State. Of course, that was once true for de Blasio too.)
Charles Stile says that Murphy’s ground game on November 2nd relies on teachers, government workers, firefighters, all from public employee unions. Ordering them all to get vaccinated or get tested every week “puts Murphy in a sensitive position with this loyalist bloc…the ranks and file is far from monolithic when it comes to vaccines [but] some union members believe the requirement should be formally negotiated, including overtime for testing.”
And there’s this: early in July at the National Education Association’s Delegate Assembly (NJEA is a branch of NEA), delegates voted down a measure that would have supported a mandate for all students and school staff to be vaccinated.
So Murphy is stuck between his “full-time, in-person instruction” mandate and his “loyalist bloc,” forced to make a decision between what’s appropriate for preventing Covid spread and what’s politically advantageous.
Barring a sudden rush to vaccination sites, I don’t see how Murphy can to stick to his original plan. Parents are getting louder about demands for a remote option and there are some troubling trends in school attendance, for instance a 10.2% decrease over the last year in low-income students enrolled in schools. At the same time the rate of NJ parents choosing to homeschool their kids went up 8 points in Newark and Jersey City. (If district enrollment drops, so does state aid flowing to districts and in this case cash is politics. Maybe it always is.)
De Blasio is home-free from political fall-out. Murphy? Not so much. Either he has to mandate vaccinations for all school staff, just like he has for healthcare workers, or he has to back off his no-remote instruction decree, at least for families most at risk. (And how do you define “risk”? According to a recent statewide survey on vaccination hesitancy commissioned by Project Ready, the most common reason cited by Newark voters for not getting vaccinated is distrust in the government. Only 24% of Black parents want their kids back in school buildings and 67% would prefer to keep their children learning remotely. CEO Shennell McCloud says, “as a Black parent myself, this is heartbreaking — not because parents are doing anything wrong by choosing what they believe to be the safest option for their children and their families, but because, as a society, we have let families down by not creating the conditions for Black parents to feel comfortable sending their children back into school buildings.”)
Yesterday a Jersey City councilman demanded a vaccine mandate for all school district staff or force them to be tested twice a week. Jersey City school board President Mussab Ali wants that too, but he’d prefer Murphy order a statewide mandate. “We are committed to doing everything possible to guarantee a safe reopening,” Ali said.
So, again, how about some out-of-the-box thinking? Why not have County Superintendents oversee a county-wide remote option? Break down those district walls! Or why not pass legislation that would allow a non-profit remote instruction company to provide statewide services?
A year and a half of Covid has dislodged the presumption that student learning is based on seat time in classrooms, just as much as it’s disrupted the idea that all employees must be in an office 9-5. There’s no going back from that, gubernatorial election or not. While Murphy has the triple misfortune of Election Day-timing, political dependence on teacher union leaders, and a dysfunctional Department of Education, he’ll need to find, if not his inner de Blasio, then the nuance and flexibility this pandemic demands.
(Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail.)