A muffled “hello?” came through the crackling intercom of a low-slung apartment building in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx. Leidy Rodriguez, standing at the doorstep outside, perked up.
“Hi!” she projected through her bright yellow bumblebee mask. “I’m a special education teacher at the elementary school up the block, and I was wondering if you have a few minutes to speak to me?”
A pause on the other side. Then, a skeptical-sounding voice said she’d be down. Rodriguez scrunched up her shoulders and let out a little excited squeal.
Rodriguez would knock on dozens of other doors over the course of a few hours on a blazing Tuesday afternoon this week. Only a handful would answer. And of those, only two would have school age-children and be up for a chat about what to expect during a third school year menaced by the COVID pandemic.
Across the country, teachers like her are going door-to-door to encourage parents to send their children into public schools this year. Class starts on Sept. 13 in New York City, where 25 teachers are canvassing neighborhoods to answer questions from weary parents, connect with families who may not have stepped foot in school buildings for more than a year, and enlist caregivers in a fight for smaller class sizes.
The American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, has dedicated $5 million to these door-knocking efforts, which has been filtered down through grants to their local unions in 30 states. In New York, teachers are fanning out across New York City, Yonkers, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany. It’s part of a coordinated, union-led campaign for a return to classrooms that also includes TV and digital ads airing across the state touting the benefits of in-person learning.
The union’s messages are up against another school year of uncertainty as the more infectious delta variant spreads. New York City is marching full-speed into the year with little clarity on what its safety policies will be, and Mayor Bill de Blasio is standing steadfast against the city offering an option to learn remotely. Last year, a majority of the city’s 1 million students learned exclusively online.
“When the city said it was going to be fully in-person, we knew parents were going to have a lot of questions,” said Alison Gendar, a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers, or UFT, which represents teachers in New York City. “So [we’re] getting people out to answer what they could, or at least giving first-person accounts of what their school is like. It’s also a chance to get parents connected to information, so we can share what we have, and be an advocate for them if they maybe don’t have one.”
Teachers in New York City, the nation’s largest school district, receive a day of training on how to use an app pre-loaded with a map of registered voters to visit. They’re given a script with survey questions and highlights to hit in conversation. Paid $25 an hour, then they have 10 shifts, each four hours long, over six weeks.
As of Monday, UFT members reported knocking on more than 2,900 doors and making 1,100 contacts. Teachers file notes from the field, which the union says show that the leading concern that parents have shared are over COVID safety rules (57%) and other safety issues (21%). Learning loss and a lack of remote instruction are in a distant third and fourth place, with 13% and 2% of parents concerned, respectively, about those issues.
The door-knockers report that 49% of families feel confident sending their children back into classrooms, while 40% are only “somewhat” confident, and 9% are opposed.
Kim Alonzo, who came outside to talk with Rodriguez as she canvassed earlier this week, could be filed into the category of those concerned about the lack of a remote option. She came to the door wearing a snug black mask and stayed behind the threshold, keeping a healthy distance.
Alonzo’s two high school children learned online last year, she told Rodriguez. Without a remote option, she worried about how her children would keep receiving instruction if schools shuttered once again, and confessed that she didn’t know much about safety protocols or even when the school year started.
“They don’t have much information on the department of education website about what’s going to happen. That would help,” Alonzo said. “I want to know if the remote learning is going to stay in place because if they don’t have remote learning and numbers go back up, then children are going to have to miss out on school work. It makes no sense.”
Rodriguez got contact information and promised to keep Alonzo up to date. But in reality, there wasn’t much information for Rodriguez to share. Less than three weeks before the school year is slated to start, de Blasio has yet to detail how — or whether — students will receive instruction while in quarantine, what COVID testing protocols will be, or the rules for shutting down classrooms or buildings when positive cases arise.
While those crucial details get sorted out, Rodriguez hopes that hearing directly from teachers who are ready to get back in the classroom will give parents a jolt of confidence.
“As a parent myself, if my kid’s teacher is telling me that, then I know that it’s OK. Because they’re there, really seeing it and really in it. And there’s no reason for them to lie to me, so I would trust that more coming from my kid’s actual teacher than the department of education or the mayor, you know?” Rodriguez said. “It’s more personal.”
Rodriguez asked to canvas in the neighborhood surrounding her school, P.S. 150 Charles James Fox, where she is a 16-year veteran. She commutes almost two hours from Connecticut where she lives.
Though Rodriguez grew up in the South Bronx, walking the neighborhood where her students live has opened her eyes like never before, she said, to what they are up against even before walking into school. On a recent day of door-knocking, she met a family living in a basement apartment with no sunlight, saw rotting banana peels and other garbage strewn in hallways, and walked gingerly past people struggling with addiction as they swayed, zombie-like, in front of a bodega.
“Some of these conditions are really, really bad. And just to think this is what our kids see every day, it gives me goosebumps. Because sometimes, people are not compassionate to that,” she said. “This is what they go home to. So when they’re in my class, I need to make sure that they’re safe and they’re happy and I’m being as compassionate and understanding as possible.”
She expects her new students will be nervous when they come to school. But she also thinks they’re ready to come back. After knocking on so many doors, she thinks parents are mostly ready, too.
“I just hope that we can do as many in-person days as possible without having any outbreaks,” she said.