Meisha Porter Had 3 Goals as N.Y.C. Schools Chief: ‘Open. Open. Open.’

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Meisha R. Porter became New York City’s schools chancellor in March, charged with reopening the nation’s largest school district, serving nearly one million students, during the pandemic.

Before becoming chancellor, she served as executive superintendent for the Bronx, a school superintendent, a principal, an assistant principal and a teacher. She was also a public school student herself, graduating from Queens Technical High School as one of its first female plumbing majors. Her daughter is a public high school student at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem.

Ms. Porter, 48, who was the city’s first Black female schools chief, led the push to bring high school students back into classrooms, launch summer programs and ensure that all students could safely return to school in September.

She is set to become the president and chief executive officer of the Bronx Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving equity in the borough, after Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office.

Her departure as chancellor comes as coronavirus cases surge in New York City, fueled largely by the highly contagious Omicron variant. Cases have increased 618 percent in the past two weeks, according to The New York Times’s tracker. Hospitalizations have increased 73 percent during the same time period.

Mr. de Blasio and Mayor-elect Eric Adams are set on avoiding a return to remote learning after the holiday break. They announced a new policy this week that aims to keep schools open by increasing the testing of students and staff.

David C. Banks, a longtime New York City educator who created a network of public all-boys schools, will become schools chancellor in the Adams administration.

Ms. Porter reflected on her tenure in two interviews with The New York Times. The conversations have been condensed and edited.

Could you walk me through from March to now — What was on your to-do list, and what was your strategy for reopening schools?

When I first walked into this role, I said to the team that we had three priorities. It was to open, open, open. To open our high schools, to open a summer program like no other and to reopen our classrooms in September. Watching students across the city grapple through the pandemic, I knew that one of the most important things that we could do was to ensure that we were positioned to safely reopen.

What made you so sure that reopening was the right thing to do?

My daughter was in her first year of high school when the pandemic hit. If that had been when I was in high school, I would not have had the device. I would not have had the space to learn privately. I grew up with a house full. It would have been really hard for me to grapple with algebra remotely as a ninth grader. And I knew that was true for many, many students and families. There’s so many Wi-Fi deserts in the Bronx and across New York City in our neediest communities.

And then I watched my daughter, who was super high-performing, get the work done, but really grapple with the social-emotional disconnect from school. I had conversations with so many parents and students who talked about how much they struggled through remote learning. I knew it was our responsibility to figure out the safest way possible to bring our students back into buildings.

How did you respond to some of the pushback?

We engaged, we went on a five-borough tour. We had conversations with school leaders, we had conversations with students, we had conversations with teachers. In a city as large as New York City, when you serve over a million students, you’re never going to get everyone to agree with you.

What were some of your biggest concerns with reopening?

When we first started, we didn’t have the vaccine for 5-to-11-year-olds, and so we were watching that really closely. We knew that was going to be important for our elementary school parents.

The priority was ensuring that our buildings were safe. We never took our eye off the ball on health and safety, and I think that has paid off tremendously.

How did you handle parents’ concerns and fears?

I have to give credit to principals across New York City for that. As soon as we announced in the spring that we were going to reopen all of our schools 100 percent, principals opened their doors, and they held open houses so parents and students could come and see the health and safety protocols and see the P.P.E. in place, see the HEPA filters in classrooms.

The first open house I went to was at a school in Queens. There was a first grader who had never been in our building, and she met her friends for the first time. It was really important that we built trust, and building trust started with opening our doors.

So much of the pandemic has been politicized. How did you navigate that?

I had the luxury of prioritizing and centering what was best for the children. Period. That is how I led, how I approached every conversation. I was fortunate that the mayor really leaned into my experience, not only as a New York City public school student, but as a parent, a teacher.

It absolutely is political in nature, right? This is this job, and you work directly for the mayor, but at the end of the day, I’m an educator first and foremost.

What advice do you have for the next chancellor, especially as we have this new variant that’s spreading rapidly?

We need to keep our schools open. And I know that that’s as important to them as it is to all of us. Our babies need to be in classrooms, they need to be learning in person with their teachers.

Stay in communication with the health experts. But continue to do the work we’ve been doing. New York City is leading the nation with our staff vaccine mandate, our air purifiers in every classroom, our surveillance system, the work we have done around testing and tracing, in-school vaccination clinics, making vaccines accessible and available.

What would you have liked to tackle if you weren’t so focused on the virus?

My career as an educator has been about focusing on the needs of our most vulnerable populations. I knew coming into this job that was going to be my priority, and that priority was grounded in being in the middle of a pandemic.

What I’m proud of is that I continued to do that work, from the launch of the Mosaic Curriculum to ensure that all of our students see and experience themselves in their curriculum, to the mental health and social-emotional supports that we’ve put in place.

Tell me a bit about your next role.

I’m excited to be the inaugural C.E.O. and president of the Bronx Community Foundation. It’s the first and only community foundation for the Bronx, a community that deserves it. It’s about investing in Bronx neighborhoods, investing in community power to eradicate inequity and build a sustainable future for all Bronxites, with Bronxites.

It’s no secret, I’m a Bronx girl. The majority of my career has been spent in the Bronx. So for me this moment is about coming full circle and bringing my experience having led the system and my experience having led the Bronx to really invest in a community I love and believe in.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you about reopening and your experience as chancellor that you want to mention?

It’s been the greatest honor and privilege to serve New York City at this time. Most people are like, “You must be crazy to come at this moment.” But one of the things that I was able to do was bring every part of me — Meisha the student, Meisha the teacher, Meisha the parent, Meisha the principal — to these decisions. I think that’s something that people appreciated about me, and I’ve really appreciated being able to do.

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