As the city's education department embarks on an unprecedented school year, it will have to do so without one of its top officials.
What You Need To Know
- Ursulina Ramirez, a top education department staffer, is departing her job ahead of the new school year
- Ramirez has worked for Mayor de Blasio for a decade, the latest high-profile education department official to leave this summer
- An architect of the mayor's pre-kindergarten plan, she helped shift to remote learning and prepare for schools to open part-time this fall
Ursulina Ramirez, the DOE's chief operating officer, is leaving to take a job at an nonprofit organization, after 10 years working for Mayor Bill de Blasio, the last six at the education department.
"It's emotional," she said in an exclusive sit-down with NY1.
A trusted adviser, she helped de Blasio write his plan for universal pre-kindergarten that he campaigned on.
She's leaving as New York becomes the only major city to reopen schools in the pandemic for in-classroom instruction.
"I don’t think there’s ever a good time to leave. I fundamentally have thought about this for the last year or so: when am I going to make that transition? And there was never a good time. And I expected to stay through the first day of school, and then we changed it," she said.
Ramirez, who has two young children, says she and her team have been working up to 20 hours a day to prepare for having children learning in school and remotely.
She helped transition the system to all-remote learning in March, and to open sites, called enrichment centers, for the children of essential workers — even filling in as the “principal” of one center when it opened and the department was short-staffed. She recalled meeting with DOE staff the Sunday evening the mayor decided to close schools to in-person learning.
“We rallied around, well, we’re about to shift education fundamentally in New York City, so let’s get ready. I think you could ask people — it brought me to tears, because I knew how difficult it was going to be for some of our students, and what it meant for some students to not have a physical space to be, and that was a very overwhelming feeling for me as an individual, but for us as a collective,” she said.
But then, she said, it was, “Let’s go, we’re going to close the system down, we need to get kids iPads, and we need to feed them.”
In recent weeks she's worked to assure skeptical staff and parents that safety is the DOE's top priority.
"The folks that are making this happen really do have the best interest of students and staff in their minds, and I want folks to know that we’re also human, and we — I get emotional thinking about it — we understand what families are facing and what our staff are facing when we ask them to enter a building during a pandemic. And that’s why we’re trying to build up every possible thing to make sure that they feel safe," she said.
Asked to make her case to those who are skeptical, she promises radical transparency:
"If we do not feel like a building is ready to open, we’re going to say that. If we think there is a classroom that is not ready to open, we’re going to say that," she said.
Still, she understands the reluctance some families feel about returning — especially those who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus.
“I think we all fundamentally believe in-person education is essential,” she said. “but when you’re talking about life and death and you’ve experienced death around you, that’s a really hard call to make.”
It’s a personal decision that goes beyond just the resources a family may have, she says, noting that those in multi-generational homes like the ones she grew up in may be even more wary.
“I mean, I’m being honest, if I have a 85-year-old grandmother living with me, I don’t know how I feel about it, and that’s very real. So I think it’s very dependent on individual family circumstances, and I don't envy the choices that families have to make right now,” she said.
Now, as families grapple with those choices, Ramirez — who has become a respected voice within and without the department's Tweed headquarters — won't be part of the new school year. But she says she’s not worried.
"I think that all leaders are focused on building benches, and that’s what I’ve done, so I don’t — I’m not worried, because if I walked away and things fell apart, that would say something about my leadership. And I have an excellent team," she said.
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