NYC Reveals Outdoor School Plan Amid Backlash; 21% of NJ Districts Choose All-Remote Start

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy said 21% of the 736 school district plans submitted to date call for an all-remote start; nearly 10% call for an all in-person start, while most envision some sort of hybrid approach

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What to Know

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo says lower-risk youth sports like tennis, field hockey and swimming can resume Sept. 21, 11 days after planned NYC school start. Schools can't travel or play out of their regions until Oct. 19
  • NYC schools are slated to reopen for limited in-person learning in less than three weeks; the debate over whether kids should be in physical classrooms at all has and continues to be a heated one
  • In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy said 21 percent of the 736 school district plans submitted to date call for an all-remote start; nearly 10 percent call for an all in-person start, while most envision some sort of hybrid approach

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new school learning plan Monday for New York City students and educators, one that he says will open up a "whole new world" of learning when classes resume next month. The development comes after the mayor had faced mounting pressure from parents and local elected officials to leverage outdoor spaces to provide additional room for in-person schooling.

"We've heard those voices who said, 'Could we do something different under these circumstances?' The answer is yes," de Blasio said at a press conference. " We want to give schools the option to do as much outdoors as they can."

Principals can set up classrooms in their schoolyards and request additional space -- like nearby streets and parks -- starting Monday, de Blasio said. Any school that applies by Friday will have a response next week, and additional requests can be submitted on a rolling basis.

NBC New York's Andrew Siff and Greg Cergol report on schooling in the city and college students returning to classes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

All submissions will be reviewed by an interagency working group comprised of the city parks, transportation and sanitation departments along with the FDNY and NYPD. Schools must provide barriers and staffing to close any street.

"Not only do we know the virus spreads less easily outdoors, but we know our students need time to run, explore and create," said Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. "As a teacher and school leaders, I always knew how important it was for kids to get some time outdoors ... outdoor learning provides more of that, more often."

At this point, the city is prioritizing 27 hardest-hit neighborhoods and schools with no useable outdoor space. While weather unpredictability remains a concern, de Blasio said schools can use outdoors while it works.

"We know the disease doesn't spread the same outdoors," de Blasio said Monday. "Starting today we empower our principals to make the maximum use of outdoors. It's up to them, if that's what they think works for their community."

NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio unveiled his Back-to-School pledge in an attempt to placate the concerns of teachers, students, and parents when it comes to returning to in-person learning in the fall, but many are still opposed to the mayor's plan, even advocating for outdoor learning this year, Andrew Siff reports

Asked whether he had thought about delaying the Sept. 10 school start date to allow principals more time to plan for the new initiative, de Blasio said the city was moving forward with the current plan. He said some principals have already identified potential outdoor space and he didn't feel it would be cost-prohibitive.

"We've been really clear about our start date. It's the one on the calendar for a long time," the mayor said.

Whether New York City schools should reopen at all to in-person learning next month -- as a growing number of major school districts from Chicago to Los Angeles to Houston and Newark, New Jersey opt for all-virtual starts -- remains a matter of heated debate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo fanned the flames of that controversy Friday, when he was asked on "TODAY" whether he would send his children, were they still school-aged, to New York City schools in person last month. Cuomo wouldn't commit.

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here


"This is a risky proposition no matter how you do it ... let's be honest," Cuomo said. "You're bringing a lot of people into a congregate setting. Do you have the testing? Do you have the tracing? Do you have the social distance requirements? We've seen schools open, we've seen colleges open and get into trouble in one week, so there's a lot of questions to answer before, but that's the dialogue we're having now, and again, if it's not a smart plan, then it shouldn't happen."

More than a third of New York City 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. The neighborhoods with the highest percentage of parents opting for remote learning are spread out through three boroughs: District 1 in the Lower East Side, District 20 in Bay Ridge, District 25 in Flushing and District 26 in Bayside all had at least 40 percent of families choosing all-remote options.

Still, with 17 days left before the scheduled start of the school year, that 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. The city plan calls for them in school no more than three times a week. It's possible that number could continue to shrink as the start of the school year gets closer and more parents get concerns regarding safety.

Mayor de Blasio and Carranza have repeatedly said they would not allow students to physically return to the classroom if it were not safe -- and they won't hesitate to re-close school buildings if it becomes unsafe at some point. For the city, that means sustaining a seven-day rolling average positive COVID test rate below 3 percent, a threshold de Blasio described Monday as the "toughest standard in the world." WHO suggests 5 percent.

"We are doing everything in our power to bring our kids back to school safely," de Blasio said in a release that laid out plans for the initiative. "Outdoor Learning will give all of our children the quality education they deserve in a safe and socially distanced environment."

But the teachers' union and some local officials have questioned whether the health and safety standards are high enough. Last week, the city's biggest teachers' union threatened to strike if schools reopen under the mayor's current plan, which the union president says lacks specifics and transparency.

Another union, the Council of School Supervisors & Administration, blasted the city for doing the same Monday as it relates to outdoor learning.

“Countless health experts have suggested that outdoor learning may be helpful in limiting exposure to COVID-19, and school leaders will take advantage of all opportunities that help keep their community safe," CSA President Mark Cannizzaro said in a statement. "However, once again, the city and DOE have made decisions, rolled out guidance and announced a deadline far too late and haphazardly for school leaders to develop and implement a thoughtful and well-constructed plan. The shortsighted guidance on outdoor learning also lacks detail, raising serious concerns around safety and security."

"Though the idea of outdoor learning has real merit, the city’s plan will not be implemented nearly as well as it could have been if the mayor had simply given principals the time and support they need," said Cannizzaro.

New Jersey schools have also been permitted to reopen statewide, though Gov. Phil Murphy has given each district the option to start fully remote. If a hybrid district changes its plans at some point, it must resubmit its virtual plans and outline specific reasons for the change, along with a plan to get to in-person.

As of Monday, Murphy said 21 percent of the 736 plans submitted to date called for an all-remote start. Nearly 10 percent call for an all in-person start, while most envision some sort of hybrid approach similar to the one in New York City. Overall, nearly 55 percent of submitted plans have been returned to districts for revision.

"We recognize the tremendous differences between and within our school districts that make a one-size-fits-all solution impractical," Murphy said. "We have provided the communities the flexibility they need to make the right decision that works best for them.

Public health experts have urged school districts planning in-person instruction this fall to use outdoor space as much as possible because the risk of coronavirus transmission is so much greater indoors. "Get as much outdoors as you can. If you look at the superspreader events that have occurred, they're almost always inside," Dr. Anthony Fauci said earlier in August.

Cuomo added another layer to New York's tangled schools web Monday, announcing that lower-risk youth sports like tennis, soccer, cross country, field hockey and swimming in all New York regions may practice and play beginning Sept. 21. No travel practice or play is permitted outside of a school's region until Oct. 19. Full-contact youth sports like football and wrestling will wait longer to resume games.

The governor cited the state's ongoing progress against COVID-19 in his decision. Right now, New York is in the midst of a 17-day streak with daily COVID test positivity rates of 1 percent or lower, Cuomo said. And the reopening continues.

Gyms across the state of New York, except in New York City, start reopening Monday. Gaby Acevedo with the latest.

Gyms can open across New York Monday for the first time in five months, though fitness aficionados in the five boroughs will have to wait until early September to get their indoor workouts on. They can visit museums in New York City starting Monday, though some institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Aug. 29) and the American Museum of Natural History (Sept. 9), have delayed their reopenings.

Museums in New York City may reopen Monday, Aug. 24, with limited capacity and other restrictions.

Like with all other previous phases of reopening, the return of gyms and museums this week comes with strict capacity limitations and other COVID precautions aimed at maintaining New York's continuing low rate of virus transmission.

For museums, capacity is limited to 25 percent. For gyms, that number is 33 percent to start, though if that proves problematic, the state says it will dial that number back. Health requirements include mandatory masks at all times, proper air ventilation, sign-in forms, screening at the door (like temperature checks) and social distancing. Cuomo left indoor classes' return to local officials.

Mayor de Blasio late last week said no indoor classes or indoor pools will be permitted when the city's gyms first reopen, which they're expected to begin doing by Sept. 2 following state-mandated inspections. Those have been delayed a bit by the city's focus on school inspections as it works to make them ready to safely accommodate students and staff for partial in-person learning by Sept. 10.

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