Brooklyn Boro

NYC preschools remain open, raising questions about safety and equity among staff

November 20, 2020 Christina Veiga, Chalkbeat New York
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This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

Four-year-olds attending the city-funded pre-K program at Kuei Luck Early Childhood Center still went to school on Thursday. Four-year-olds enrolled at the pre-K program in the public school at P.S. 175, just a few blocks away in Rego Park, Queens, had to stay home.

As the city has now crossed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school closure threshold, a 3 percent coronavirus positivity rate over a seven-day average, preschools find themselves in a tough spot. Those that operate in community-based centers operated by nonprofits or private businesses can remain open. Their counterparts in education department-run buildings must shut, raising complicated questions of safety and equity for staffers and families.

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“If it’s not safe enough for teachers in [Department of Education] buildings, then it’s not safe enough for the teachers in my building,” said Alice Mulligan, who runs Our Savior’s Lutheran Preschool in Brooklyn, which is contracted by the city to provide free pre-K. “We want to stay open, but honestly my stomach absolutely turns at the thought of somebody on my staff getting sick.”

The city relies on programs run by nonprofits or small businesses to serve the majority of students enrolled in its universal, free pre-K initiative. The rest attend programs in public schools.

Providers are well aware that families depend on them for child care, and some centers also need to stay open to survive financially.

There are also equity issues at play. Teachers and staff who work in community-run preschools are more likely to be people of color, and they already are paid less than their public school counterparts. Some are calling for incentive pay for being asked to work while the rest of the school system’s employees stay home.

Overlapping authority between the city and state has created confusion over public school opening and closings. The same is true for these independently run preschools, which have been deemed essential businesses by the city and state, but are licensed by the city’s Department of Health and contracted through the city’s education department.

“We have rigorous health and safety practices in place to support these programs, and we are also closely monitoring the citywide test positivity average and will continue to update our guidance as the public health situation changes,” said education department spokesperson Sarah Casasnovas.

Programs can apply for a waiver to offer remote-only instruction. So far, only about 30 out of hundreds of providers have done so, the education department said.

Confusing and conflicting guidance

But the conflicting guidance given to community organizations and public schools makes it hard to make informed decisions about whether to stay open, said David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement, a nonprofit that serves more than 800 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in East Harlem.

“Nonprofit community-based organizations like Union Settlement — as well as the families we serve — are struggling to prepare for the potential public school closure, largely because the city has not provided a defensible public health rationale for the decisions being made,” he wrote in an email.

It is a particularly confusing tangle of guidance given that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set a less conservative threshold for keeping campuses open. The state permits schools to serve students until 9 percent of a community’s coronavirus tests come back positive over a seven-day average. The state has also allowed bars and restaurants to continue serving customers.

The mayor, on the other hand, set the city’s stricter threshold for shutting down schools this summer, when teachers, worried about the safety of their school buildings, threatened to strike. The influence of the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents public school teachers, played a role in the city’s more stringent threshold, and that’s another long standing sticking point for the community-run pre-K centers.

Most community-run child care centers, often referred to as Community Based Organizations or CBOs, either do not have unionized staff, or their employees are represented by a different union, District Council 37. These workers are also paid less than their UFT counterparts in public school pre-K programs, though the city recently agreed to significant salary increases.

“I think it’s outrageous that they’re closing the schools and not closing the CBOs,” said Henry Garrido, executive director of DC 37. “It’s not as if COVID stops at the door of a CBO and doesn’t enter there.”

Gregory Brender, who works on youth policy issues at the nonprofit United Neighborhood Houses, said program leaders would like to see their staff compensated for continuing to work even as coronavirus cases rise.

“They’re already being paid less than the teachers in the department of education, while having to come into work during the school shutdown,” Brender said.

Financial and logistical strain

Other cities have prioritized early education during the pandemic. In Denver, only students in preschool through second grade have been attending school in person — though officials there decided this week to close down classrooms after Thanksgiving. In Michigan, the governor this week closed high schools and colleges, but elementary and middle schools can keep their doors open. Some elected officials have called on New York City to take a similar approach.

“Children not being in school, that causes a certain level of harm versus the statistics of the coronavirus itself,” said Kevin Kung, executive director of Kuei Luck Early Childhood center in Rego Park, Queens.

Yet, only about half of the center’s students are attending, Kung said. His center has private paying students that help subsidize publicly funded seats. Enrollment in his private program is down to just 14 though he has space for 60 children. That has created a financial incentive to stay open.

Kung hasn’t been able to pay his rent in full since this summer, after running out of the federal payroll protection loans. He is still waiting on state assistance, which was earmarked to help child care businesses reopen after the height of the health crisis forced New York City to shut down.

Meanwhile, his operating costs continue to spike. To bolster safety, Kung has upgraded the air filtration systems at his school and contracted with a company to provide on-site COVID testing.

He said he’ll keep an eye on the city’s infection rates and keep communicating with families and teachers to gauge whether they feel safe coming to school. For now, he plans to stay open as long as some students keep coming.

“We get messages, ‘Please try to stay open,’” he said. “We’ll have to take it day-by-day.”

It has already been difficult figuring out the logistics of having enough teachers for two versions of preschool — in-person and remote. But many teachers have children in public schools and face child care challenges of their own, said Vaughn Toney, the executive director of Friends of Crown Heights, one of the largest child care providers in the city.

Still, Toney plans to keep the doors open at the 19 centers he oversees. While many students have chosen to learn online, others have parents who work in hospitals or as other essential workers and need in-person care.

Toney knows the challenges and risks of operating during a pandemic: Just this week, he had to close one center after two people there tested positive.

“Everyone has to do their part,” he said. “Our part is to serve the children of families, of those serving on the front line.”

The question is whether families will continue to feel safe bringing their children to community-based preschools if the rest of the public school system is closed. While the pandemic crested in New York City, Toney opened three emergency child care centers but attendance was low as families made other arrangements.

“No one showed up,” he said. “A lot of our parents, they chose to stay home.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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