What to Know
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who owns the final decision on New York schools, says he won't make a final call on fall reopening until early August; he said the state will submit its finalized guidance for schools next week
- Cuomo's announcement came shortly after Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed a preliminary plan for NYC schools this fall; it calls for a hybrid approach of in-person and remote learning as well as mask and distancing mandates
- Amid the staggering unknowns, NYC has launched a return to school website to keep parents informed. Citywide family information sessions will also be held, with the first one scheduled for next week
Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he won't decide the fate of New York's schools until early August, despite mounting pressure to do so. He made the announcement Wednesday roughly an hour after Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed a preliminary 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.
While de Blasio has repeatedly said in no uncertain terms that New York City schools will reopen in some fashion in September, he acknowledges it's ultimately Cuomo's call. The governor, who said the NYC plan was not credible as of now, has steadfastly refused to commit to them reopening at all for in-person learning in the fall, citing still prolific unknowns around the virus. Much could change -- for better or worse -- by September.
"We will open the schools if it is safe to reopen the schools. Everyone wants the schools to be open," Cuomo said. "I'm not going to ask anyone to put their child in a situation that I wouldn't put my child in. That's how I make these decisions."
He said Wednesday the state would release its finalized school guidance on Monday, July 13, while New York's 700 districts must submit their reopening plans for approval by July 31. The governor said he'll decide the first week of August on the reopenings.
Could he allow some districts to move forward and hold others? If his decision to shelve indoor dining in New York City indefinitely while allowing it to continue elsewhere is any indication, it's certainly possible. The governor posed the question to himself during his Wednesday briefing and said he was "ducking it."
For his part, De Blasio says he'll work closely with the state every step of the way and closely monitor the data, which has been Cuomo's prime focus from Day 1.
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.
Parents will be notified about their children's schedules by August so they can plan accordingly, the city said. Families will have the option to choose fully remote instruction if that best fits their needs. They'll also be allowed to transition 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.
"This is the single biggest piece of the equation. 1.1 million kids and their family members who want to see in-person learning," de Blasio said Wednesday. "Everyone is focused on health and safety first, while understanding the best way to educate our kids is in the classroom."
Social distancing itself is a quandary beyond class size. How can it be enforced among elementary schoolers? Or those enrolled in the city's 3- and 4K programs? Neither the mayor nor Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza immediately addressed social distancing as it relates to younger students Wednesday, nor did they share specific details on what the limits may be on students per class.
"We cannot maintain proper distancing and have 100 percent of our students back in school buildings five days a week. It's geographically, physically not possible," Carranza said.
Schools will also likely need some means of monitoring health indicators, though neither de Blasio nor Carranza delved into the specifics of that Wednesday either. Among the other unknowns: whether students will 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.
"We will have to triple the size of the teaching force. How are we supposed to do that in the middle of a phenomenal recession?" United Federation of Teachers President Mike Mulgrew said.
Answering those questions and finalizing the city's overall school plans will be a top priority the next two months, de Blasio said.
In the meantime, the city has launched a return to school website to help keep parents informed. Carranza pledged regular updates. Citywide family and student information sessions will also be held; the first one is set for July 16.
The clock is ticking down amid the still staggering uncertainties. Emotionally and physically weary parents who have worked to home school or solely care for their children, some also while working full time, the last four months, are desperate.
Some parents have questioned the purpose of the new school reality, wondering if education in this restricted environment is sufficient education at all. Others are hesitant to send their kids back to class amid ongoing virus concerns.
A recent Department of Education survey of more than 400,000 parents underscores the point. It found 75 percent of parents want to send their kids back to school in September. That leaves a full 25 percent unsure.
While much remains highly fluid, especially with COVID cases rising in 41 states and Washington, D.C, all state and local leaders agree student and staff safety will overwhelmingly be the driving factor as far as the reopening of schools.
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
There is some immediate relief on the horizon for New York City parents, at least. On Tuesday, the Board of Health voted to reopen 3,000 childcare centers next week. Those centers will have a 15-child per room cap and face-covering mandates as well as daily health screenings and other precautionary measures.
Capacity limits and face-coverings have also been part of the fall school strategy that New Jersey and Connecticut started to roll out over the last month. The governors of both states admit anything can change at any time, but they have decidedly different underlying strategies. In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont has ordered all school districts to prepare for the return of all students, in person, in the fall.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy's plan calls for a mix of in-person and remote learning, as is the case with New York City's plan. Murphy also cautioned that schools could transition back to full remote instruction if the health situation deteriorates. Nationally, the picture has rapidly grown darker in recent weeks.
COVID cases are smashing daily records on a regular basis in a growing number of states, prompting the tri-state area to issue a travel advisory for those coming from viral hotspots and forcing all three governors to slow their own reopenings. The average age of new COVID patients has plunged 15 years since April.
Cuomo has blamed the recent national surges on President Donald Trump, accusing him of pushing uninformed reopenings over public health in a desperate attempt to revive the starved national economy. Trump has also strongly pushed state and local leaders to reopen schools in the fall.
He has called the current CDC guidelines for doing so safely "impractical" and "expensive." Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday the CDC would issue new school guidance next week. Meanwhile, the president is threatening to pull federal funding from schools that don't reopen in September.
The president's latest schools push drew swift rebuke from national leaders in education, who say he is more interested in scoring points for the November election than protecting the safety of students and their teachers.
“Trump has proven to be incapable of grasping that people are dying — that more than 130,000 Americans have already died," said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association. “Educators want nothing more than to be back in classrooms and on college campuses with our students, but we must do it in a way that keeps students, educators and communities safe."
The United States topped the 3 million COVID case mark on Tuesday. It has lost at least 132,000 people to the virus, by NBC News estimates. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut account for a third of those fatalities.
Virus projection models had almost universally agreed a few weeks ago that the mortality trend line was declining nationwide. As of Wednesday, Nicholas Reich, who leads a research team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said his group was projecting increased death in seven states versus the last model run.
All seven states are on the tri-state's quarantine-restricted list for incoming travelers. The number of states on that list is now 19: Delaware, Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Utah, Texas, Tennessee, Iowa, Idaho, Georgia, California, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Nevada.