What to Know
- NYC schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent a letter to key stakeholders this week apprising them of an initial eight-point framework for safely returning to the classroom in September, which remains the plan
- Remote learning may be combined with in-person instruction at first; buildings will have to be adjusted to comply with social distancing
- Staggered starts and split scheduling may also be part of the multi-faceted strategy; some schools may start earlier than others
Mayor Bill de Blasio reaffirmed Thursday New York City's plan is to have as many students in person in schools as possible when classes are scheduled to resume on Sept. 10, though he says the city has to prepare for "every eventuality."
The reality is no one knows what the COVID pandemic will look like three months from now, de Blasio said. There are so many lingering questions -- Will there be a vaccine? Will infections dramatically recede? Will the virus reassert itself?
"Our schools need to be able to move on a continuum. The better the health situation, the more students we have to be ready to serve in person," the mayor said. "It could be every single student back in school. It could be no students back in school. We have to be ready for every eventuality."
De Blasio's Thursday comments come a day after News 4 reported the schools chancellor sent a letter to principals, superintendents and other key stakeholders across the city that offers parents a first look at what they might expect for classes this fall.
Home-bound kids will get some relief, though, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that New York cities could open public pools and playgrounds at their discretion, following five regions of the state entering Phase III of the reopening plan.
More than one million students in the country's largest public school system have been learning remotely since de Blasio shut down schools in mid-March as COVID infections started to rise exponentially across the city. Teachers adjusted abruptly to unprecedented remote instruction and the city provided all students in need of an iPad with the equipment to keep education moving.
Chancellor Richard Carranza indicated in his letter, which the mayor said he reviewed before it was sent, that remote instruction would likely still be a factor in the fall, part of a "blended learning" strategy he said would best support the transition back to the classroom. That would mean some time spent in school buildings, combined with remote learning.
Also likely part of the transition: social distancing and split schedules. Carranza said building capacity would be adjusted to conform with CDC, state and city guidelines on public safety. Splitting schedules could involve having certain children attend some days, while other children attend different days.
Some students could start class earlier than others, and all children may not start together right after Labor Day as part of the "rolling" or "phased" starts.
Building procedures will need to ensure limited movement of students and staff into, out of, and within the buildings and allow for enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols. School busing and food operations will also need to reflect new health standards.
Late Thursday, the president of the city's teachers union sent a letter to educators regarding the fall, saying that the Department of Education is planning on reopening school buildings in September by using the hybrid model. United Federation of Teachers President Mike Mulgrew detailed how it looks like schools and teachers will be divided to best serve the children.
"A team approach probably makes the most sense with one set of staff members assigned to work with each cohort of students," Mulgrew said in the letter, with the number of cohorts at each school dependent on how many people individual schools are allowed to accommodate safely.
While admitting that there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution that would work for all schools given how different they can be, each school will design plans that work best for staff, students and families.
"The virus has put us in an impossible place, so no plan will be perfect. We will all need to be flexible," Mulgrew wrote in the letter. "Things we have taken for granted, such as how and where we do our work, have already been upturned during this remote era. When we return to school buildings, we will not pick up where we left off in mid-March either. These changes must be made for safety’s sake."
Schools will also need ample PPE supplies and likely some means of monitoring health indicators to protect children, who may show different symptoms of COVID than adults or none at all. Temperature checks may also be a component of the multi-faceted strategy that will be in place when kids return to class.
"The DOE, in consultation with the UFT, is establishing citywide testing and tracing infrastructure and resources, entry screening, the provision of personal protective equipment including masks for all staff and students, stepped-up daily school cleaning, myriad social-distancing measures and clear protocols for the communication and notification of new virus cases in schools," the letter from the union to teachers read. "The UFT has recommended that all students and staff be tested for the coronavirus before the first day of school in September."
Since children typically haven't been tested for COVID at the same rate as adults and may experience it differently, there's little hard data on the number of kids who actually may have been infected at some point. Antibody testing on 800 children from one of New York City's leading pediatric providers recently found about one in five had tested positive, reflecting the general citywide rate.
A new COVID-linked condition called multisystem inflammatory condition in children (MIS-C) has complicated matters for school districts across the country. It attacks the blood vessels rather than the respiratory system and can be fatal. Three children have died in New York state, including at least one young boy in New York City, from MIS-C. Overall, the condition remains rare, though it has been found in most states. New York state is currently investigating 207 cases.
No official decisions have been made, including whether public schools will even open as scheduled in September. It's all part of a complex decision-making process that will be carefully analyzed over the coming weeks. There are additional challenges by age group. It's easier to enforce social distancing standards among high-schoolers, for example, than elementary-schoolers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked school districts about a month ago to begin preparing for the possibility in-person classes could return in the fall. He'll want to review comprehensive plans before determining any hard dates. Asked about schools Wednesday, Cuomo said it's possible the rollouts could vary by region.
"I can't see the fall because I don't have a crystal ball," the governor said. "You could have theoretically different models, but we have to know where we are with COVID."
Carranza said New York City has been planning to reopen since schools were first shut down.
"While there are still significant uncertainties with respect to COVID-19 and its impact on New York City in the months ahead, one thing is for sure: it will take all of us working together to rise to the occasion to support student learning, address the trauma of COVID-19 disruption and loss, and keep our children on a path to success," he wrote in the letter.
The transition will also acknowledge the challenges children have experienced over the last few months. They have been physically separated from schools and classmates. They've missed key milestones. Many have lost family members.
Carranza said the start of the 2020-2021 school year "will be unlike any other that we’ve experienced."
"We know that we must have a thoughtful process to reacclimate children, parents, and staff to being back in school buildings," he wrote in the letter. "This means we must focus on the social-emotional needs of school communities while implementing trauma-informed approaches to teaching and learning."
The letter reflects just an initial framework and guidance so principals can start planning for the next school year. More updates are expected in the weeks and months ahead. The chancellor will be issuing a new $10 million citywide school budget allocation to allow principals to give teachers and school leaders per session pay to support the planning process throughout the summer months, officials said. Those funds will be distributed equitably across schools.
Teachers, who typically use June as a time to start gearing up for the fall, want an answer sooner rather than later to help clear some things up.
"I read the email from the chancellor. But it's unclear - are teachers there all the time or sometimes? That doesn't make sense, they'll expose students on the rotating days," said Gabrielle Utting, who teaches English at the School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan. "There's a lot of uncertainty right now."
Mulgrew conceded that staffing the new hybrid plan is going to present some difficulties, and it goes beyond just teachers.
"Will certain educators be fully remote and others always on-site, or will most staff follow a hybrid model like their students? How will related service providers provide their support services to students with disabilities? Every building will need at least one school nurse, but our students will also need social workers and other mental health professionals who can help them recover from the trauma wrought by this pandemic," Mulgrew said in the letter.
Teaching experts worry the city may be (once again) asking too much of its teachers.
"Trying to do both at the same time when teachers have never been prepared to do on-line teaching seems like and impossible task to me," said Emily Feistritzer, and education training expert. "On-line is not like the classroom. These teachers need to be trained."
New York City is barely three days into Phase I of its reopening, while the rest of the state has entered Phase II and some regions near Phase III. In-person education isn't slated to return until Phase IV of Cuomo's four-phase plan.
De Blasio has already modified the grading system to reflect current difficulties and rolled out an extensive remote-learning summer program expected to enroll nearly 180,00 students. It focuses on keeping the most at-risk kids on track.
A number of New York colleges and universities, including NYU, are already telling students to plan to return to campus in the fall, though some colleges, like the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, have pushed back start dates a bit.
Connecticut's state network of colleges and universities also plans to reopen in the fall with restrictions. On Wednesday, the University of Connect released its preliminary plan, which calls for social distancing and face coverings among other measures to reduce the risk of exposure.