Eric Adams has started his tenure as New York City mayor by rejecting a request from the city’s largest teachers’ union to temporarily move public schools to remote learning, capping off a frenetic first 72 hours of his administration.
Adams’ focus on keeping children in-person for school – even in the face of opposition from the teachers’ union – is one of the clearest examples of how the former Brooklyn Borough president will offer the nation’s largest city a different brand of leadership for the next four years.
The request from the United Federation of Teachers came as coronavirus cases across the country – including in New York City – have spiked dramatically with the spread of the Omicron variant in recent weeks. In a statement to his members on Sunday, President Michael Mulgrew said the union asked Adams to temporarily move to remote learning to mitigate staffing challenges caused by positive Covid-19 cases but that the mayor felt “strongly” that schools needed to remain open despite the surge.
“We advised the new mayor that it would be safest to allow our school system to go remote temporarily until we could get a handle on the staffing challenges that each school is about to face as we return,” he wrote. “However, he feels strongly that schools need to remain open.”
Adams remained rooted in his position on Monday.
“We’re staying open,” the mayor said.
“We’re not sending an unclear message of what is going to happen day to day,” Adams continued. “I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen day to day, we’re staying open.”
Mulgrew said in an interview with CNN that the union wanted to avoid a scenario where there is a high rate of student attendance combined with low staff, resulting in a lower-than-normal rate of teachers to students.
“The issue was we wanted to make sure that each school could have the appropriate staffing to be safe,” he said. “The last scenario we want is a school being forced to make a decision about combining classes together.”
Adams’ administration touted that 1.5 million test kits had been delivered across the New York City Department of Education system over the weekend, hoping that increased surveillance would allow schools to safely remain open. It announced a new Covid command center specifically for education issues, something it hopes will allow educators to quickly escalate issues – such as staffing – as kids go back to school.
The decision for New York City schools to stay in-person sets it apart from several other large school districts. From Atlanta to Cleveland to cities in New Jersey, school districts have moved online for at least a few days in January, hoping the delay will help them address a litany of issues caused by Covid.
But the choice is not without risk. Covid cases in New York have spiked in the last few weeks, the number hitting figures not seen since the start of the pandemic in 2020 – a stunning statistic given that New York City was the early epicenter for the virus’s spread in the United States.
Adams, however, has argued that the city needs to prioritize testing and vaccinations and not “wallow in Covid.”
“When a mayor has swagger, the city has swagger,” Adams said Monday. “We’ve allowed people to beat us down so much that all we did was wallow in Covid – it’s all we did – and we no longer believe this is a city of swagger, this is a city of resiliency. … We’re going to survive.”
Education politics have become a focal point during the pandemic, with decisions over closing and reopening schools, virtual learning and masking as flashpoints in the debate of how to educate children and keep students and staff safe.
New York City in particular became a hotbed for this debate, with the final years of former Mayor Bill De Blasio’s tenure defined by his fight against Covid and his handling of schools during the pandemic.
After closing schools during the initial wave of the virus, de Blasio set a policy that if the city reached a certain positivity rate, the schools would go to remote learning again. That happened in November 2020, setting off a wave of protests from parents and other groups who wanted to convince the mayor to reverse course. New York City schools did not fully reopen until September 2021, a reality that became a central debate during the race to succeed de Blasio.
Adams’ campaign offered hope to both the teachers who were worried about returning to the classroom and parents who were eager to get their children back into schools. But his campaign also took an aggressive approach of not letting the virus – now that vaccines are widely available – dominate life in New York City.
“We have lived through two years of continuous crisis, and that insults our very nature as New Yorkers. The crisis tells us that it is in charge. That it is in control,” Adams said shortly after being sworn in as mayor over the weekend. “This will be our New Year’s resolution: We will not be controlled by crisis.”
The decision to keep schools open and reject the call of a teachers’ union is the cap on what has been a markedly busy first 72 hours as mayor – a frenetic pace that matches Adams’ call for his first 100 days to be defined by getting “stuff done.”
Adams, a former captain with the New York Police Department, has used public transportation in the first days of his administration – and called 911 to report two men fighting while he waited for the subway – and rode a Citi Bike to get to work on Sunday.
“This is not going to be a city of disorder,” Adams said in a speech to police on the same day that one of their officers was hit with a bullet while sleeping in his car. “This is not going to be a city of violence.”
The mayor also mapped out a snow response plan for an incoming winter storm and signed an executive order continuing the vaccine mandates for city workers and private-sector employees in New York while considering increasing that requirement to include booster shots.