After coronavirus forced millions of school children to stay home for the rest of the academic year, there's now hope for kids and parents of a return to in-person classes in the fall as COVID-19 cases number drop around the tri-state.
While some parents are still skeptical about schools reopening after summer, worried about the spread of infection, others are looking forward to the end of remote-learning -- but things may not be that simple because of safety restrictions and social distancing.
Here's how each state is handling the school reopening when it comes to the safety of kids and teachers:
New York City Public Schools
Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed a fall reopening plan for New York City schools that involves a hybrid approach of both in-person and remote learning and intense COVID safety precautions — that includes having students in school buildings no more than three times a week.
According to the city's reopening plan, most students will likely be in school just two or three days a week to assure social distancing in the nation's largest public school system. They will learn via remote instruction on the days they're not in class. Class sizes will be limited, which de Blasio said could allow for more focused instruction. Principals will get a slate of scheduling formats to evaluate.
If two students in different classrooms test positive for COVID, for example, the entire school must be shut down for 14 days. New York City says it won't open schools if its rolling seven-day positivity rate hits 3 percent, a stricter threshold than Cuomo's. De Blasio hasn't indicated the 3 percent threshold applies to anything but a citywide assessment. Positivity rates have generally been higher in the Bronx than in Manhattan, for example, driven by a few high-infection rate neighborhoods.
Families will have the option to choose fully remote instruction if that best fits their needs. Parents were instructed to answer the City's survey on whether they want to opt-out of blended learning by August 7. Now that the date has passed, parents will be allowed to transition their kids back to in-person instruction on a quarterly basis.
Safety measures will include required face coverings for all students and staff, social distancing, nightly deep cleans and regular cleanings throughout the day. Cafeterias, auditoriums, gyms and other large spaces may be converted into classrooms for additional spacing.
Every New York City public school building will have a certified nurse in the building this fall, de Blasio said. According to the mayor, NYC Health and Hospitals was working to ensure there was adequate staffing for the plan — which calls for a contract of 400 full-time nurses — and noted that, despite concerns about availability, there was still a month to find everyone needed. Additionally, the more than 2,000 early childcare programs in the city will now require more nurses, as de Blasio said 100 nurses would be hired to provide coverage, with the ZIP codes hardest hit by COVID-19 receiving priority.
Among some of the unknowns: Whether students will be able to participate in extracurricular activities like band class or team sports, and what happens to parents who can't monitor their children at home a few times a week and still keep their jobs.
Also a possible major logistical challenge: Hiring thousands of people to work in the proposed classrooms, as laid out in the plan. Because what would ordinarily be one classroom with one teacher, there will now be multiple groups requiring different teachers. The teachers union also said there are not enough nurses in each school live up to the city's current plan.
The mayor said the city is currently in the process of retrofitting its schools so as many of its more than 1.1 million public school students will be able to return to in-person classes safely when school starts on Sept. 10.
New York City also released a plan that would allow public, private and charter schools to hold in-person classes outdoors, after facing mounting pressure from parents and local officials to leverage outdoor spaces for additional room. De Blasio said principals can set up classrooms in their schoolyards and request additional space, like nearby streets and parks.
More than a third of NYC families with children in public schools have opted to begin the year fully remotely; 15 percent of teachers say they'll also limit their instruction to virtual means. That still leaves more than 664,000 students (about two-thirds of public school children) signed on for the hybrid approach — less than what the mayor had previously been reporting, which he said was around 75 percent.
"We have a Plan A -- that's what every school has been instructed -- figure out the maximum number of students you can get in the school safely," de Blasio said, adding that all the necessary precautions, from PPE to social distancing requirements, were being incorporated into each district's planning process.
Other New York Schools
Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the green light to reopen all of New York's 750 school districts in person this fall — a data-driven decision that mirrors the threshold-based calls he made on the phased economic reopenings for the state's 10 regions.
The state still has to sign off on each of New York's 749 school districts' individual plans; if it doesn't, those districts don't reopen in September. The governor's decision on reopening school districts relies solely on the seven-day rolling average positive test rate for the region where each is located. The threshold for the initial clearance he gave Friday was 5 percent. If positivity rates tick above 9 percent in a given region going forward, the district -- and all the schools within it -- will have to close.
That said, Cuomo says there's more to the schools equation than the viral transmission rate. All he does is set the floor. Parents and teachers make the call --- and many have serious concerns about whether school plans work for them.
The Board of Regents and the New York State Education Department formed a School Reopening Task Force to help guide schools as they plan for fall reopening. Officials held four meetings with educators, administrators and parents in June to discuss the best way to move forward but no guidelines on reopening have been released.
Certain protocols are required statewide. Every person in school must wear a mask when social distancing isn't possible, for example. Daily temperature checks are another component. See the state Department of Education's complete guidelines for safely reopening schools here. While the governor has outlined core standards, much of the planning is up to the individual districts.
Cuomo says he'll ask every school district to post their testing and contact tracing plans online. He also wants full remote learning plans posted, citing concern he's heard from parents and educators about demographic inequities in that regard. (New York City gave iPads to kids in need in March and will do the same in fall.)
The DOE says two things are certain: the health of everyone is paramount and planning for schools to reopen is not a one-time event.
"The Board and Department will continuously monitor the situation and provide updated guidance, policies, and regulatory changes as the situation requires," the department said.
Areas of focus officials are using to develop the guidance and regulatory changes include:
- health and safety;
- teaching and learning;
- social-emotional needs;
- special education;
- bilingual education and multilingual learners/bilingual learners;
- digital equity and access;
- budget and fiscal;
- transportation, facilities, and nutrition; and
- staffing/human resources.
Gov. Phil Murphy cleared the way for schools to open for in-person instruction if they desire and if they meet health and safety guidelines. Murphy announced an executive order for pre-K through grade 12 schools and universities to officially reopen for the upcoming academic year if they desire and if they meet social distancing and other health and safety standards, including social distancing. However, students who choose remote learning "must be accommodated."
Along with that decision, all districts will be allowed to begin with just virtual learning if they so choose, as schools will not be forced to offer in-person learning. It’s unclear how many districts that would entail, but Murphy and interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer said most schools have already picked a hybrid option, meaning some in-person and some remote instruction.
In June, Murphy had unveiled preliminary guidance for reopening the state's schools in the fall, one that involves a hybrid approach of in-person and remote learning but must include the first, as well as COVID screenings.
Murphy said parents and guardians would be allowed to opt-out of in-person education and choose all remote learning for their children when schools reopen this fall. He is leaving it up to individual districts to determine best practices and the incorporation of both learning in and out of the classroom.
The governor admits there's no "one size" fits all approach to reopening schools. New Jersey's guidance was developed after surveying more than 300,000 parents and listening to key stakeholders, including 300 superintendents. (For full details, find the Department of Education's complete 104-page report here.)
- All faculty, staff, and visitors will be required to wear face coverings where social distancing isn't possible, including on buses
- Class sizes will be limited where possible to better promote social distancing. Desks may be moved further apart, barriers may be added between desks and desks can be turned to one direction to avoid virus transmission
- Students and school district employees will be screened for COVID symptoms
- Playgrounds are allowed, but the equipment (and all frequently touched areas) must be sanitized after each period of student use
- No determination has been made yet on organized athletics
- Cafeterias can be open but the state suggests districts stagger meal time. Self-serve and buffet lines should be prohibited
While all plans are subject to change depending on the state's COVID-19 infection rates, the number has been extremely low compared with its tri-state neighbors.
- Class sizes might be smaller to accommodate social distancing and students may be moved to gymnasiums or auditoriums to do so
- Masks will be required for students and staff, but temperature checks and COVID tests won't
- School districts are recommended to use a "cohorting" system, to keep the same students in small groups based on classrooms
- School hallways would be rerouted to be one direction only to cut down on the number of students passing each other
- Students could have to eat lunch in their classrooms or outside
- School buses will be used at or near full capacity. Current plans do not include a plan to limit the number of students to a seat or sit them in every other row
If Connecticut sees an increase in COVID-19 cases in the fall, school districts are required to come up with alternative plans for learning. One alternative plan would be a hybrid option that would include some in-person learning and some remote learning at home.
The state later released a 50-page guidance that has a list of requirements and recommendations that schools will have to address that cover different areas, including remote learning, options for students and staff who may not be able to return immediately, communications plans, social distancing and masks in school facilities, hygiene, transportation and more. Some of those details include:
- Schools being required to have a communications liaison informing families of all plans and expectations regarding health and safety
- Information from families regarding how many students per household would be expected back, would require transportation, would need remote learning support, etc.
- How to get "vulnerable learner groups" back in person first
- Making sure school buildings are able to comply with all measures established, including water and ventilation systems, as well having having as many no-touch systems (for doors, trash cans, bathrooms, etc.) activated and used as possible. Where those are not available, reducing touch points (propping doors, removing garbage lids, etc.) is advised
- Arranging classrooms to have all students facing the same way, and so there is distancing between students as well the teacher