Just 10 days after after shuttering New York City public schools, Mayor Bill DiBlasio announced on Sunday that elementary-age children would return to in-person learning on December 7. It was a rare victory in the tumultuous educational saga of 2020, and a sudden reversal of a strict policy, agreed upon between the city and the United Federation of Teachers union, to close the country’s largest school system once New York’s COVID-19 test positivity rate hit 3 percent.
A little over a week ago, the threshold seemed non-negotiable. Why the sudden change of heart?
That the mayor and UFT abruptly reversed course may be thanks in part to a coalition moms across the city who launched an impromptu, grassroots fight to keep their children in school. “Something, or someone, influenced the mayor and [UFT president Michael] Mulgrew to change their tune,” Mia Eisner-Grynberg, the mother of a 1st grader in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood and co-organizer of the group Keep NYC Schools Open, told Vogue. “Frankly, we’re the ones that spoke out.”
Like parents across the city, Eisner-Grynberg had suffered whiplash. After a seven-month-long closure during the peak of pandemic, the mayor delayed the start of school not once, but twice. Once school reopened this fall, in a hybrid model of remote learning and a few days per week in-person, “we immediately saw our kids come back to life,” Eisner-Grynberg said. “Elga Castro, a teacher of international studies at City College and mother at the same school, told me her third-grade daughter became “the happiest kid on earth,” once in-person learning began.
But by mid-November, they were engaged in a depressing daily ritual: checking on the dreaded 3 percent number. The benchmark felt baseless to Eisner-Grynberg: Despite early concerns, schools had maintained impressively low transmission rates. The thought of shutting them down—again—all while restaurants and gyms remained open, amounted to “asking our kids to carry the cost of the entire pandemic,” she said. Not to mention the blow to working families—and mothers, in particular, who, have left the workforce in droves to patch the childcare gap and shoulder the burden of online schooling.
As DiBlasio warned of a looming closure, Daniela Jampel, mother of a first-grade daughter, felt powerless. “There’s gotta be somebody actually doing something about this,” she thought, but she’d yet to see widespread freak-outs converting to tangible action. “If we want our voices to matter,” she thought, “we have to stand up and make them matter.”
Jampel messaged Eisner-Grynberg, a fellow attorney whom she met in a Facebook group for moms in their school district. “We, literally, were Googling ‘how to start a petition,'” Jampel recalled. They drafted one at Change.org, titling it, simply, in English and Spanish: “Keep NYC Schools Open,” and circulated it to friends, hoping to stave off a shutdown.
But they knew the issue was fraught. Clashes had spilled out in the Facebook group for their district since early fall. Eisner-Grynberg, Jampel and Castro were among those advocating to open schools, while other parents and teachers were saying, as Castro recalled, “I don’t want to die.” Castro felt judged, and alone. “It makes you feel like a murderer, or selfish, that you want to send your kids.”
As signatures on their petition ticked into the hundreds, “we went from Googling ‘how to start a petition’ to frantically contacting each other to say, ‘how do we start a protest?'” Eisner-Grynberg said. Many of the moms in their growing group had attended protests, but none had ever organized one. With guidance from another group in Queens that fought to keep their schools open amid rising coronavirus numbers, they drew 100 protesters to New York’s Foley Square on a Saturday. When DiBlasio officially closed schools the following Thursday, their Keep NYC Schools Open petition exploded to thousands of signatures (it currently has more than 15,000).
Parents had reached a breaking point. “You took away the meager crumb that you gave us,” Jampel summarized the attitude toward the city and the mayor. “Now we have nothing.”
In 9 p.m. Zoom meetings after their kids went to sleep, Jampel, Eisner-Grynerg, and Castro were among the mothers who hatched two protests—one outside City Hall on November 20 and another outside Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s house, the day before Thanksgiving. At the second protest, Castro, a Puerto Rico native, said in Spanish: “Eight weeks ago, I woke up my daughter and she was like, ‘Finally, it’s the first day of school.'” Those eight weeks were a dream for her daughter, she said, until the day she had to break the news that schools were once again closed.
The mothers of Keep NYC Schools Open were up against two behemoths: New York City and the UFT. Jampel, herself the daughter of a veteran New York City public school teacher, denied “the idea that if we wanted schools open, we were union busters,” she said. “Look at the power of the union versus the power of us. We’re just moms.”
“I do not think the mayor expected us to be organized enough to fight against this with one voice,” Jampel said. After their protests, she noted, the union started walking back its endorsement of the 3 percent threshold, saying the school’s closure policy should be location-specific and dependent on the transmission in individual schools. “Then, the mayor comes out, reverses the decision and says, ‘I hear the parents who were very frustrated,'” Eisner-Grynberg said. “I think the only rational explanation for the change in course is that he did hear us.”
Castro rejected the cries that the movement to keep kids in school is an elitist, “nice white parents” effort. “I’m not denying that this country is racist or that education is segregated, but to say that this is just for white kids or is a white movement is really unfair,” she said. Yes, many leading voices have been white, but she points to diverse moms, including Latinas like her, as instrumental.
Despite the victory for elementary school children returning to classrooms, the leaders of Keep NYC Schools Open say they’re not done fighting for middle and high school children, who are still relegated to remote-only learning. “It’s a huge mistake to call this a win and close the book,” Eisner-Grynberg said. “We’re talking about 145,000 kids who were attending middle school and high school who had that stripped away from them with no timeline for restoring it.”
Jampel remains infuriated. “We’re a rich city,” she said. “We have conference rooms in thousands of buildings in Midtown, they’re completely empty. During the summer, we had private entities saying, ‘Tell us how to help to get these kids back in school,’ and nothing was done.”
The mothers, who had been quietly raging, no longer feel alone. “Everyone was just waiting for somebody to be the one to do something,” Jampel said. “We are probably just as surprised as anyone else that it was us.”
They say they’re grateful to pass on a spirit of protest to their daughters. Hailing from an activist family in Puerto Rico, and taking her daughter to protests in the city, Castro has tried to teach her, “You never stop protesting or saying out loud what you believe in because you’re afraid,” she said. “Many times, I’ve been defeated… and then you get a few times when you’re heard.”