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Thanks to Unions, NYC’s School Reopening Deal Was Costly and Educationally Hazardous

New York City schools reopened this fall under terms dictated by the city’s teacher and principal unions. Now, as city schools close — once more at the unions’ behest — the city is left with thousands of extra teachers hired because of union demands. The quality of education students receive may suffer as a result.

Back in August, leaders of unions representing teachers and principals warned that the plan to allow parents to select between blended or virtual learning would produce “staffing shortages” in many schools.  

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio responded by approving the hiring of 2,000 more teachers, later increasing that number to 4,500. The number aligns with hiring trends in recent years, though it falls short of the 10,000 requested by the principals union, the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators.

As part of the New York City public school reopening plan developed by de Blasio, union leaders, and Chancellor Richard Carranza, schools were set to close if the citywide coronavirus test positivity rate reached or exceeded 3 percent. Schools closed today, one day after the 7-day rolling average positivity rate reached that threshold.

The 3 percent positivity threshold for closing schools is 6 points lower than the 9 percent recommendation issued by Governor Cuomo.

The personnel needs of a virtual school are notably lower than those required by in-person or blended instruction. Whereas public schools in general have an average student to teacher ratio of 16:1, virtual schools operate with an average ratio of 44:1. Fewer teachers are needed because classroom management concerns are minimized and some instruction is offered asynchronously. A teacher can present the same asynchronous lesson to multiple classes, thereby freeing up more time for individualized support.

As of 2019-2020, New York City public schools featured a 14.1:1 ratio of students to teachers, according to data provided from the city. The National Center for Education Statistics does not provide a ratio for New York City, but data it provides from other districts indicates that New York City’s student to teacher ratio is the lowest among the nation’s 25 largest school districts. The median ratio among those districts (excluding New York) is 16.4 students per teacher.

It is questionable that the thousands of new teachers can help improve upon the virtual learning experience that was offered in the spring. A meta-analysis (i.e. study of studies) on the relationship between class size and achievement concludes that there is “at best a small effect on reading achievement” and a “negative, but statistically insignificant, effect on mathematics.”

Teacher quality, meanwhile, is the single most important in-school factor with regard to student achievement. And there is cause for concern about the quality of teachers who were brought in during the staffing surge. New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott Stringer characterized the rapid staffing surge as a “fire drill,” and principals have expressed concern about the quality of teachers hired in recent months and their limited discretion over those decisions.

Some teaching positions have been filled through the absent teacher reserve, a pool of tenured teachers who remain employed by the district (often to perform clerical work or substitute teaching) despite losing their full-time teaching job.  

Reviews of online learning in the spring were generally poor. The recent teacher staffing surge could make round two even worse.

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