New York City public schools will begin to reopen with weekly COVID-19 testing

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City’s public schools will begin to reopen for in-person learning on Dec. 7, starting with elementary schools for students whose parents agree to a weekly testing regimen for the novel coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday.

The schools, which make up the country’s largest school system, were closed less than two weeks ago after the citywide rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive exceeded a 3% benchmark agreed to by the mayor and the teachers’ union.

“It’s a new approach because we have so much proof now of how safe schools can be,” de Blasio told reporters, saying the 3% benchmark was being scrapped and pointing to research that shows young children appear to be less vulnerable to COVID-19. On Sunday, the city’s seven-day rolling average of positive tests was 3.9%, de Blasio said.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who joined the mayor at a news conference, said with the new measures he believed the city could “safely and successfully keep our schools open for the duration of this pandemic.”

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the labor union was supportive of the mayor’s phased reopening so long as “stringent testing was in place.”

New York City, which teaches more than 1.1 million students in its public schools, was one of the few jurisdictions in the United States to attempt to reopen schools in the autumn as the country continues to struggle with the world’s deadliest outbreak of the coronavirus, and its efforts are being widely watched. But it closed classrooms back down in mid-November, less than eight weeks after they had begun to offer in-class lessons.

Some New Yorkers were frustrated to see schools close down again while gyms were allowed to operate and restaurants could offer indoor dining in most areas under rules enforced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has publicly feuded with de Blasio over how best to tamp down the virus’ spread.

“I think that’s the right direction,” Cuomo said of the mayor’s announcement on a later conference call with reporters. Health experts said schools “should be kept open whenever it’s possible to keep them open safely,” he said.

Pre-kindergarten classes will also reopen Dec. 7 alongside elementary schools. Schools that serve children with special educational needs, known as District 75 schools, will reopen Dec. 10. De Blasio said middle schools and high schools would reopen at later dates that had not yet been set.

Many families had opted for remote learning even as classrooms reopened in September, but the city also offered “blended” learning, with students attending in-person classes a few days each week if they agreed to monthly coronavirus tests.

With the reopening of schools next month, to enter a classroom, students must have a signed consent form agreeing to coronavirus testing or a letter of medical exemption from a doctor, de Blasio said. Tests will be soon be carried out in schools on a weekly, not monthly, basis, but only about a fifth of students will be tested in a given week.

The mayor said the plan was to have in-person learning five days a week where possible when schools reopen.

The governor retains the power to override the city and close schools in neighborhoods where the test positivity rate surges, de Blasio noted. The city will also monitor schools’ coronavirus test results, and may close down any individual classrooms or entire schools where multiple cases are reported.

The United States has reported over 4 million new cases so far in November and over 35,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to a Reuters tally, with more hospitalizations than ever this year and deaths reaching their highest level in six months.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Leslie Adler)

New York City public schools to close on Thursday as COVID-19 cases rise: mayor

(Reuters) – New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday that the city’s public school district, the largest in the U.S., would be closed for in-person learning starting on Thursday to ward off the increasing spread of COVID-19.

“New York City has reached the 3% testing positivity 7-day average threshold. Unfortunately, this means public school buildings will be closed as of tomorrow, Thursday Nov. 19, out (of) an abundance of caution. We must fight back the second wave of COVID-19,” the mayor said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Texas Governor unveils school safety plan after deadly shooting

Community members stood in support as students and administrators returned for the first day of class since a deadly mass shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Pu Ying Huang

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Texas Governor Greg Abbott unveiled a $110 million program intended to increase school safety by putting additional trained marshals inside schools and more closely monitoring social media for threats in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting earlier this month.

The plan was announced nearly two weeks after a 17-year-old armed with a shotgun and pistol killed 10 students and educators at Santa Fe High School in the Houston area.

It followed a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February in which 17 people, mostly students, were massacred.

“Everybody in this entire process and everybody in the state of Texas never wants to see another occasion where innocent students are gunned down in their own schools,” Abbott told a news conference in Dallas on Wednesday.

The proposed funding works out to about $20 per student in a state that has about 5.5 million students enrolled in its public schools.

The 40-point plan, which followed meetings last week between Abbott and education and law enforcement officials, calls for enhanced mental health resources for students and new metal detectors for extra security at schools, Abbott said in a statement.

The Texas Democratic Party issued a statement condemning the governor’s plan, claiming that he failed to directly address gun crimes that occur in the United States.

“Nothing in Abbott’s plans address the reality that it is too easy for a weapon to end up in the hands of someone wanting to cause harm,” Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

Abbott is an ardent defender of the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Soon after the shooting at Santa Fe High School he said that any proposed legal changes that he would consider to improve school safety would “protect Second Amendment rights.”

His proposals include eliminating a rule that requires some school marshals to store their weapons in a safe while on campus.

Abbott said he would ask lawmakers to consider legislation to allow law enforcement, families, school staff or a district attorney to file a petition seeking the removal of firearms from a potentially dangerous person only after legal due process was provided.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Scott Malone)

After walkouts, U.S. teachers eye elections for school funding gains

FILE PHOTO: Teachers rally outside the state Capitol on the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo

By Heide Brandes and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY/TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – High school physics teacher Craig Hoxie filed to run for Oklahoma’s House of Representatives on Friday, a day after the end of a two-week teacher walkout that had pressed lawmakers for school funding.

“A week ago, I would have told you I wasn’t going to do it,” said the 48-year-old Army veteran who has worked in public schools for 18 years, as he drove to the state election board office to submit his paperwork to become a Democratic candidate in this fall’s election. “There is a funding crisis with all public services in our state.”

Teachers and parents in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona have staged collective actions in recent weeks, seeking higher wages and education spending. They say years of budget reductions have decimated public school systems in favor of tax cuts.

Protests in those Republican-dominated states have encouraged teachers unions and Democratic candidates who will try to capitalize on the outrage to score electoral victories. In November’s mid-term elections, 36 governorships and thousands of state legislative seats will be up for grabs.

“This transcends what has traditionally been viewed as blue states and red states,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which boasts 1.7 million members. “The deprivation has gotten so great that people are taking the risk to escalate their activism.”

The union, typically aligned with the Democratic Party, has targeted a number of key states with plans to mobilize in statehouse, gubernatorial and congressional elections this fall.

Nationwide, progressive causes have seen a surge of enthusiasm since Republican President Donald Trump’s election. Protesters have rallied on issues as wide ranging as gun control, gender equality, science and immigrants’ rights.

The Oklahoma walkout demonstrated the power of collective action to influence Republican lawmakers, as well as its limits. The legislature boosted annual education funding by about $450 million and raised teacher pay by an average of about $6,100, yet those figures remained short of the teachers’ demands.

The state’s largest union, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), declared victory and turned its attention to the fall elections to continue the fight for more funding. At least a dozen Oklahoma teachers are seeking office.

In remarks to the Tulsa County Democratic Party on Friday, OEA President Alicia Priest said local union chapters would form election committees to support pro-education candidates, while members will go door-to-door.

“We have to change and try something different,” she said of teachers choosing to run for office themselves.

Several Republican incumbents facing challenges from teacher candidates did not respond to calls for comment.

Sheri Guyse, 42, a parent with two children in Oklahoma public schools who participated in the walkout, pledged that come November, she would remember whose side lawmakers were on.

“A few of their demands were met, and of course that’s a step in the right direction, but the only thing I’m feeling really good about today is that there’s a big election in November where a lot of these legislators will lose their jobs,” she said.

A number of teachers have already won special legislative elections as Democrats in the last two years. Karen Gaddis, a retired teacher who ran on a largely pro-education platform, captured a seat near Tulsa that had been in Republican hands for more than 20 years.

“Things have gotten so bad out here, we’re like a third-world country,”” Gaddis said in a phone interview. She first ran and lost in 2016, but said she has sensed a shift this year as people have grown fed up with budget cuts.

“Education in particular was just being flushed down the toilet,” she said.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on statehouse races nationwide, said more than 50 educators are running in other states. The group said the 26 states in which Republicans control both the legislature and the governorship have seen an average 5 percent cut in education spending over the last decade.

In response, David James, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports that party in statehouse races, said, “It is sad and appalling for the Democrats to be coordinating a national protest effort with their longtime faculty room friends in the teachers unions to push a political agenda in the classroom, at the expense of the nation’s students.”

John Waldron, a social studies teacher, ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in Oklahoma in 2016. He is running again as a Democrat in 2018, this time for the state House of Representatives, and said the walkout gives him confidence this campaign will unfold differently.

“We’ve turned a whole generation of Oklahomans into political activists now,” he said.

(Reporting by Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa; Writing and additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)

Striking Oklahoma teachers push for more funds, Republicans say done

Teachers rally outside the state Capitol on the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – A strike by Oklahoma educators demanding more school funding entered a 10th day on Wednesday, as the state’s Republican leaders warned they plan no further increases after approving $450 million in new revenue to boost teacher pay.

Schools in the state’s largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, remained closed the day after Republican Governor Mary Fallin signed into law two bills that raised taxes but fell short of teachers demand for another $150 million.

“The governor and lawmakers keep closing the door on revenue options when Oklahomans are asking for a better path forward,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest union for teachers with about 40,000 members.

The strike is part of a wave of actions by teachers in states that have some of the lowest per-student spending in the country. A West Virginia strike ended last month with a pay raise for teachers, and educators in Arizona are also expected to protest on Wednesday, without skipping classes, to seek enhanced school funding.

The Oklahoma strike, which began April 2, has closed public schools serving about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 students. Schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa were shut on Wednesday.

Fallin has already approved legislation that would raise teachers’ wages by an annual average of $6,100, but teachers are holding out for a $10,000 raise over three years and other increases in school funding.

Saying that education funding was wrapped up, Fallin signed a bill on Tuesday aimed at expanding revenues from Native American casinos and one that will raise about $20 million from internet sales taxes, her office said in a statement. Fallin also approved a bill that repealed a hotel tax, a measure that teachers wanted vetoed.

“As far as this year, we’ve accomplished a whole lot, and I just don’t know how much more we can get done this session,” state Representative John Pfeiffer, a House floor leader and top Republican lawmaker, told the local Fox affiliate on Tuesday.

A non-partisan poll released on Friday showed 72 percent of voters in Oklahoma, where teacher’s pay is near the bottom among U.S. states, supported the walkout.

(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

‘Momentum is on our side,’ Oklahoma teachers union leader declares

As their walk-out for higher wages and increased education spending enters its second week, teachers rally outside the Oklahoma Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S. April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Heide Brandes

By Heidi Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma teachers carried their walkout over school funding and higher pay into a ninth day on Tuesday as a union leader declared that educators had the advantage of momentum in a battle with the Republican-dominated state legislature.

State lawmakers have approved nearly $450 million in new taxes and other revenues to help fund teachers’ raise pay and boost other education spending since the walkout began on April 2, but the union is pushing for more action to raise overall spending by $600 million each year.

“Momentum is our on side,” president Alicia Priest said in a video posted late Monday night on the Oklahoma Education Association’s Facebook page.

The walkout closed public schools serving about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 students on Monday, and schools in the state’s largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, were shut again on Tuesday.

The Oklahoma strike comes amid a wave of action by teachers in states where budgets have been slashed, as measured by per-student spending, over the past decade.

The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said Oklahoma’s inflation-adjusted per student funding fell by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state.

A West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise for teachers. Educators in other states, increasingly angry over stagnating wages, are also considering walk-outs.

Opponents of the Oklahoma tax hikes say lawmakers could bolster education spending by cutting bureaucracy and waste rather than raising taxes.

Republican lawmakers said they have made major moves to boost education spending and it may be difficult to find more money.

“This year’s education budget, which spends $2.9 billion (a 22 percent increase), has been signed into law. I don’t anticipate that bill being changed this year,” Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat said on Facebook ahead of this week’s legislative session.

Thousands of teachers packed into the state Capitol on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to remove a tax exemption on capital gains that would bring in another $100 million in revenue. They also asked Governor Mary Fallin to veto the repeal of a hotel tax that is valued at an estimated $50 million.

The new taxes and revenue approved by lawmakers translate into an average teacher pay raise of about $6,100.

Teachers want a $10,000 raise over three years. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher is currently $31,600, state data shows.

Graphic – Education funding 2008 thru 2015, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2Iumbck

Graphic – U.S. Teacher Salaries in 2017, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2IsvlGa

(Writing and additional reporting Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Oklahoma teachers press Senate to pass tax plan to end strike

Teachers rally outside the state Capitol on the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Heidi Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma teachers packed the state Capitol on Monday to press the Republican-dominated Senate to enact a capital gains tax overhaul educators said could bring in about $100 million and help end a statewide walkout now in its second week.

Tens of thousands of teachers have come to the Capitol each working day since the strike started April 2 calling for increased spending for an education system where inflation-adjusted general funding per student dropped by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Public schools serving more than half of the state’s 700,000 students were closed on Monday, including those around Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Oklahoma teachers are some of the lowest paid in the country.

“We need lawmakers to make a long-term investment in our children’s future,” the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union with about 40,000 members, said on Monday.

In the past few weeks, lawmakers approved nearly $450 million in new taxes and revenue to help fund teachers’ pay and education, but that is still short of the $600 million being sought by teachers.

The Senate is set to meet this afternoon and discuss a bill that would remove a tax exemption on capital gains. If the bill is enacted, the union has said it would be a major step toward ending the strike.

They also want lawmakers to implement a hotel tax that would bring in an estimated $50 million.

The strike has garnered strong public backing, with a statewide survey from the Sooner Poll agency released last Friday showing that 72.1 percent of respondents supported the walkout.

The job action comes after a West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise and as teachers in other states, increasingly angry over stagnating wages, consider walkouts of their own.

Opponents of the tax hikes, including Oklahoma Taxpayers United, argue that lawmakers could boost education spending by cutting bureaucracy and waste rather than raising taxes.

The new tax and revenue that has been approved by lawmakers translates into an average teacher pay raise of about $6,100.

Teachers are seeking a $10,000 raise over three years. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher is currently $31,600, state data shows.

A major cause of budget strain comes from tax breaks Oklahoma granted to its energy industry, which were worth $470 million in fiscal-year 2015 alone.

(Writing and additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown)

Oklahoma teachers vow to stage second day of walkouts

Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Thousands of Oklahoma school teachers, including those in the state’s two biggest cities, were expected to return to picket lines on Tuesday for the second day of strikes demanding state lawmakers do more to shore up public education spending.

A walkout by more than 30,000 educators in Oklahoma, whose teachers rank among the lowest-paid in the United States, forced the cancellation of classes for some 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students on Monday, union officials said.

Many of the striking teachers traveled by the busload to Oklahoma City for a mass rally on the capitol grounds before lobbying legislators in the halls of the statehouse. They vowed to continue their protests indefinitely.

“When our members believe the legislature has committed to funding our children’s future, they will return to the classroom,” the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, said in a statement posted online.

Classes in about 200 of the state’s 584 school districts were disrupted by Monday’s walkout, according to the union.

Schools in the state’s two biggest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, will remain closed on Tuesday as the walkout extends into a second day, union officials said. The Oklahoman newspaper listed more than two dozen districts expected to be shuttered for the day as well.

The job action reflected rising discontent with years of sluggish or declining public school spending in Oklahoma, which ranked 47th among all 50 states in per-student expenditures and 48th in average teacher salaries in 2016, according to the National Education Association.

The Oklahoma strikes on Monday coincided with a second day of walkouts by several thousand teachers in Kentucky after legislators there passed a bill imposing new limits on the state’s underfunding public employee pension system.

The protests come a month after teachers in West Virginia staged a series of strikes for nearly two weeks before winning a pay raise. Teachers in Arizona also rallied last week for more educational funding.

Educators say years of austerity in many states have led to wage stagnation and the hollowing-out of school systems. West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma all have Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures that have resisted tax increases.

Oklahoma legislators last week approved, and Governor Mary Fallin signed into law, the state’s first major tax hike in a quarter century – a $450 million revenue package intended to help fund teacher raises and avert a strike.

But teachers, some of whom have complained of having to work second jobs to make ends meet, said the package fell short and demanded lawmakers go further by reversing spending cuts that have forced some districts to impose four-day school weeks.

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Editing by Paul Tait)

Chicago school system plans to borrow up to $389 million

FILE PHOTO: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade Investment Luncheon Program in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on December 17, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Nelles/File Photo

By Dave McKinney

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Chicago’s cash-strapped public school system plans to seek up to $389 million in short-term loans to avoid closing schools early for the summer and to make required pension payments next month, the mayor’s office said on Friday.

The fix will be secured through short-term financing against $467 million in delayed block grant funding by Illinois’ fiscally paralyzed state government, which has not passed a full-year operating budget in 23 months.

Escalating pension payments have led to drained reserves, debt dependency and junk bond ratings for Chicago Public Schools.

The planned borrowing follows Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto in December of legislation that would have funneled $215 million in state funds to the nation’s third-largest school system to help it make a required $721 million pension payment next month.

A school-funding overhaul that would direct more money to Chicago’s schools passed the Illinois Senate this week but drew immediate criticism from Rauner’s education chief, casting serious doubts on the measure’s long-term prospects.

Absent any movement in the state legislature on school funding, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the borrowing plans as a short-term bridge.

“While we work with state lawmakers on long-term solutions to Illinois’ education funding challenges, in the short-term, (we) are doing what is necessary to keep our students in the classroom and on the path to a brighter future,” Emanuel said in a statement.

Terms of the borrowing were not immediately known. The Emanuel-appointed Chicago school board expects to vote on the new borrowing authority at its May 24 meeting.

The grant money upon which the borrowing will be secured is part of $1.1 billion in state payments Illinois owes to more than 400 school systems. The state has been unable to distribute those grant payments because of the unrelenting budget stalemate.

The mayor’s office said CPS expects to receive its allotment of state grant funds in “coming months.” But Abdon Pallasch, a spokesman for Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, said on Friday his office has no idea when the money will be disbursed.

Rauner’s office did not have an immediate reaction to CPS’s new borrowing.

(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis)

Fed’s Kashkari calls for changes to U.S. education system

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari speaks during an interview at Reuters in New York February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari said on Thursday that the U.S. education system needs an overhaul and called for more parental choice, failing schools to be shut down and additional research to tackle issues.

“We must not stand still – not just for the sake of our economic competitiveness, but also so that we become a fairer society where all Americans have a real opportunity to fulfill their potential,” he said in prepared remarks to a Federal Reserve childhood education research conference in Washington.

Kashkari, the lone dissenter against the U.S. central bank’s decision last week to raise its benchmark interest rate, did not mention monetary policy or the economic outlook in his speech.

Instead, he focused on strategies to improve educational outcomes that would have the knock-on effect of strengthening U.S. employment.

Those would include greater choice for parents picking where to send their child to school, according to the former Republican candidate for California governor.

“I believe all parents — across income, racial and geographical groups — should be able to choose where to send their children to school,” Kashkari said.

The U.S. central bank does not have policy levers to target education but does have a host of researchers looking at all aspects of the economy.

(Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Andrea Ricci)