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Who We Are »
Betsy Combier

Help Us to Continue to Help Others »
Email: betsy.combier@gmail.com

 
The E-Accountability Foundation announces the

'A for Accountability' Award

to those who are willing to whistleblow unjust, misleading, or false actions and claims of the politico-educational complex in order to bring about educational reform in favor of children of all races, intellectual ability and economic status. They ask questions that need to be asked, such as "where is the money?" and "Why does it have to be this way?" and they never give up. These people have withstood adversity and have held those who seem not to believe in honesty, integrity and compassion accountable for their actions. The winners of our "A" work to expose wrong-doing not for themselves, but for others - total strangers - for the "Greater Good"of the community and, by their actions, exemplify courage and self-less passion. They are parent advocates. We salute you.

Winners of the "A":

Johnnie Mae Allen
David Possner
Dee Alpert
Aaron Carr
Harris Lirtzman
Hipolito Colon
Larry Fisher
The Giraffe Project and Giraffe Heroes' Program
Jimmy Kilpatrick and George Scott
Zach Kopplin
Matthew LaClair
Wangari Maathai
Erich Martel
Steve Orel, in memoriam, Interversity, and The World of Opportunity
Marla Ruzicka, in Memoriam
Nancy Swan
Bob Witanek
Peyton Wolcott
[ More Details » ]
 
The New York City Schools That Didn’t Close; What Can We Learn From Regional Enrichment Centers?
In a cold, drizzly Monday morning in late March, Santiago Taveras left his home in Teaneck, New Jersey, before the sun rose. Traffic was light as Taveras merged onto the George Washington Bridge, crossed over the Hudson and Harlem Rivers into the Bronx, passed the shuttered Cardinal Hayes High School, and steered toward a big, boxy building in Mott Haven. Already, the city had begun to feel like the national epicenter of what people would come to call the pandemic. The previous week, the city had implemented shelter-in-place rules, shutting down offices, restaurants, and schools.Ninety-nine people had died in the city so far and another twelve thousand New Yorkers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, fifteen percent of them in the Bronx. Taveras’s wife, Alexandra, had fretted as he left the house that morning, wearing a dress shirt and slacks. What if he caught the virus? What if he carried it home?
          
   Santiago Taveras   
The New York City Schools That Didn’t Close

What can we learn from regional enrichment centers, which hastily opened just before the peak of the coronavirus pandemic?

By Casey Parks, The New Yorker, September 14, 2020

In a cold, drizzly Monday morning in late March, Santiago Taveras left his home in Teaneck, New Jersey, before the sun rose. Traffic was light as Taveras merged onto the George Washington Bridge, crossed over the Hudson and Harlem Rivers into the Bronx, passed the shuttered Cardinal Hayes High School, and steered toward a big, boxy building in Mott Haven. Already, the city had begun to feel like the national epicenter of what people would come to call the pandemic. The previous week, the city had implemented shelter-in-place rules, shutting down offices, restaurants, and schools. Ninety-nine people had died in the city so far and another twelve thousand New Yorkers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, fifteen percent of them in the Bronx. Taveras’s wife, Alexandra, had fretted as he left the house that morning, wearing a dress shirt and slacks. What if he caught the virus? What if he carried it home?

Taveras, a Dominican who was born in the Bronx, is six feet three and, as he often points out, weighs about three hundred and fifty pounds. He has worked for the New York City Department of Education for thirty years as an elementary school teacher, assistant principal, high-school teacher and principal, student-support manager, and deputy chancellor, among other roles. Now he was taking on a role for which there was little if any, precedent in the department’s hundred-and-seventy-eight-year history. He would open a temporary school in the middle of a worldwide health crisis.

Around 5:30 a.m., Taveras parked his Toyota Sienna minivan outside of the Mott Haven Educational Campus. Most of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren would stay home that day, as they had every day the previous week, but a deputy chancellor and a team of administrators had rushed to put together a plan for what they’d begun calling “regional enrichment centers”—schools for the children of essential workers. Department officials had warned Taveras that they weren’t sure how many students would show, or when. Fourteen thousand families had registered to send their children to one of ninety-three centers. The night before, officials had assigned a hundred and seventy students—ages three to fifteen, nearly all of them the children of health-care workers in the Bronx or Harlem—to the school that Taveras would oversee.

He stepped inside and found that the custodial staff had arrived before he did. The lobby reeked of bleach and disinfectant, which he found reassuring. He walked the building’s halls, looking for classrooms with sinks. Most of the doors were decorated with children’s art: skylines, butterflies. Some of the desks still had notebooks in them—supplies that students left behind before lockdown. One classroom had the remnants of a bean-growing project. Normally, the Mott Haven campus holds half a dozen schools; it sits on six and a half acres, and when it opened, a decade ago, architects called it the largest single school-construction project in New York City history. Even if hundreds of kids came today, Taveras thought, he’d have plenty of space to house them.

Half a dozen paraprofessionals arrived, some wearing gloves, goggles, and face shields. By 7 a.m., a school nurse stood in the entrance, waiting with a no-contact thermometer for the first families to arrive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would not issue recommendations for face masks until April 3rd, so the children who barrelled in were barefaced and beaming, ready to return to school after a week off.

“Welcome,” Taveras said, bumping elbows with the kids. “I’m Big Santi.” He spaced the kids out as they came in, careful not to fill any classroom with more than nine children. He sent four- and five-year-olds to a room on the north end, then he directed nine- and ten-year-olds toward desks that still bore other children’s names.

The parents were mostly nurses from the Montefiore, Harlem Hospital, New York Half a dozen paraprofessionals arrived, some wearing gloves, goggles, and face shields. By 7 a.m., a school nurse stood in the entrance, waiting with a no-contact thermometer for the first families to arrive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would not issue recommendations for face masks until April 3rd, so the children who barrelled in were barefaced and beaming, ready to return to school after a week off.

“Welcome,” Taveras said, bumping elbows with the kids. “I’m Big Santi.” He spaced the kids out as they came in, careful not to fill any classroom with more than nine children. He sent four- and five-year-olds to a room on the north end, then he directed nine- and ten-year-olds toward desks that still bore other children’s names.

The parents were mostly nurses from the Montefiore, Harlem Hospital, New York Presbyterian/Columbia University, and Lincoln Medical Centers. Some of them were crying; nearly all of them looked exhausted. The city was weeks away from reaching its peak infection rate, but already, Taveras said, he could see “it” in the parents’ faces. “It wasn’t even necessarily the hours,” he said. “It was what they were seeing at work.”

Taveras walked every parent down the well-lit basement hallway that he’d commandeered for the center. He pointed out the hand wipes and the bottles of disinfectant that city officials had sent over the weekend, and he spread his arms wide to show that custodians had spaced each desk six feet apart. Kids rushed to pick their spots. Their parents lingered. At 10 a.m., Taveras led the last of them through the sterilized lobby and out the exit doors. Then he returned to a classroom, washed his hands, and doused them with disinfectant. “I said to myself, ‘If these people are putting their lives on the line, at least let me make sure that their kids are good.’ ”

By the second week of March, many parents, teachers, and elected officials were asking Mayor Bill de Blasio to close the city’s public schools. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo had confirmed the city’s first coronavirus case on March 1st. School attendance had plummeted. Three dozen infectious-disease experts signed a letter, delivered March 12th, urging the Mayor to act. But de Blasio resisted. New York’s schools, he said, were “interrelated deeply” with its health-care and mass-transit systems. Leaders of 1199 S.E.I.U., the city’s largest union for health-care workers, had urged the Mayor to recognize that closing schools would leave many of them with no one to care for their children.

“We are worried about a cascading effect,” de Blasio told MSNBC’s Joy Reid, on March 14th. “You’re not going to have a functioning health-care system if the folks in the medical field, the doctors, the nurses, the techs, everyone has to stay home with their kids.” De Blasio told Reid that he was “trying to hold a line,” but, behind the scenes, a group of education administrators had begun acknowledging what would become a months-long debate. For some students, school is the only place where they can eat a warm meal or access medical care. Schools provide clothes and psychological support. For hundreds of thousands of families, they provide child care that is otherwise unaffordable. And back in March, even for families who could afford it, there seemed to be little child care available at all.

“It started to register,” Karin Goldmark, the deputy chancellor for school planning and development, said. “We are going to have to do something so that people can still go to work so that they can save the lives of New Yorkers.”

Goldmark, an administrator who normally manages the department’s building utilization—“Basically, I do for space what the C.F.O. does for money”—agreed to take the lead in creating a network of emergency child-care centers. On the afternoon of Friday the 13th, she started brainstorming with the help of other D.O.E. departments. By Monday morning, New York city schools were closed, and Goldmark had a plan.

She’d spent the weekend calling the health-care-workers’ union to find out where their members lived. When the union sent her a list of popular Zip Codes, she started casting for buildings in those neighborhoods. During a regular year, students attend classes in a wide array of structures. Some have high ceilings and windows that open, but others contain narrow hallways and broken H.V.A.C. systems. Goldmark began her search with a detailed checklist. She wanted A.D.A.-accessible spots with a mixture of indoor and outdoor space, and she preferred large, new buildings, like the ones at the Mott Haven campus. The centers planned to serve three hot meals a day, so Goldmark searched for schools with big kitchens, places wide enough for cafeteria workers to stand far apart from one another.

The department initially limited enrollment to children whose parents were health-care workers, transit employees, or emergency responders. They allowed some Sanitation Department staff to apply, but, even with those caps, Goldmark knew that she’d need at least five thousand Department of Education employees to volunteer at emergency centers with no promise of additional pay. Most of the city’s seventy-five thousand instructors would be working from home, teaching their students remotely, so Goldmark assembled a motley crew of high-school principals, paraprofessionals, and social workers. Midlevel administrators like Taveras volunteered, and Ursulina Ramirez, the department’s chief operating officer, agreed to run a center in Queens temporarily after the original appointee fell sick just before it opened.

A few hours before the centers opened, Goldmark was still assembling her team. At 10 p.m. Sunday, a school official called Juliette Giorgio, a retired teacher and social worker who had spent thirty-three years in the department, to ask if she could be at P.S. 128, in Queens, by seven o’clock the next day. Giorgio retired last year to take care of her mother, who has Parkinson’s and dementia, but she didn’t hesitate that night. She arranged for a home health aide to stay with her mother and reported to the Queens center the next morning.

“There’s a lot going on now about fear,” Goldmark said, alluding to the ongoing debate about how to reopen all of New York City’s public schools safely, which recently resulted in de Blasio, under pressure from the United Federation of Teachers, delaying the first day of in-person instruction to September 21st. “But people stepped forward at that moment. It was people who were willing to put themselves at risk in order to serve the city. They were just, like, ‘People need us, so we’re here.’ ”

Taveras volunteered because he missed being around children. He hadn’t worked full time in a school since 2016, when he was removed as principal of DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx, after an investigation found that he had changed grades for four students without following proper procedures. He’d spent the last three years working as a climate-and-culture specialist, doing therapeutic crisis intervention and conflict resolution for the high schools in Districts Seven, Nine, and Twelve, a job that takes him into schools but doesn’t allow him to form day-to-day relationships with young people. By 10 a.m. on the first day, he had twenty kids, a little crew that reminded him of the children he had taught in his first job, at Central Park East 1 Elementary School.

Other centers sat empty that day. A school nurse from the Bronx told the Web site Gothamist that she’d woken up at 5 a.m., driven past signs warning her to stay home, then waited alongside two dozen other staffers for families who never showed up at a center on the Upper East Side. For some families, the centers felt like a last resort. Joan Curcio Williams, a physician who was working sixteen-hour days at Elmhurst Hospital Center, in Queens, said that she hesitated when hospital staff e-mailed her about the centers. “The idea of going was scary,” Williams said. “The first wave of students were going to be the children of first responders, people who were tremendously exposed. You’re basically making a decision that you’re going to trust in the system.”

 
© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation