On Friday, the NYC Department of Education posted the latest update to their reopening plan. It contained two big revisions from the one previously released: Now schools will be able apply to exempt themselves from providing in-person or blended learning to all the students whose parents opt into that choice, if they can show either of the following criteria are true:
- “The recommended models are not feasible given space, staffing, family choice and expected in-person attendance.”
- “Schools have unique programmatic needs that must be addressed, to better meet the needs of the community and the proposed exception has staff and parental support. “
In these “limited” cases, schools will be asked to explain why existing models do not meet their community’s needs and how the proposed model better responds to their ability to program their space with existing staffing.
I would guess that most of the large high schools, many of which are overcrowded and in which scheduling will be challenging to say the least, will opt into remote learning only.
Other schools may apply to give preferences to in-person learning to certain populations, such as students with disabilities, English Language Learners, or those in temporary housing. The DOE says that in any case, “ no other group of students can be prioritized in a way that is to the detriment of students with disabilities for in-person instruction. As long as all students with disabilities’ needs are met, other groups can be prioritized for in-person instruction over the general population.”
As experts have pointed out previously , it makes sense to prioritize elementary school kids, along with especially vulnerable students as listed above, for in-person learning, both because they tend to do especially poorly with remote instruction and also because younger kids have been shown to transmit the virus less effectively.
The Governor’s benchmark for safe reopening, following Johns Hopkins and others, is 5%, while the Mayor’s is a less restrictive 3%. Many public health experts and epidemiologists agree that NYC schools seem to be in the best position of any large district in the country to offer face-to-face learning, with an COVID positivity rate of only about one percent.
Our positivity rate is very low and the lowest we are likely to see until there is an effective vaccine, which could take a year or more to be developed and widely adopted. By borough, according to the state, the current positivity rates ranges from 1.3% in the Bronx, .9% in Staten Island and Brooklyn, .8% in Queens and .6% in Manhattan.
However, and this is a big however, schools should be reopened only if they can adopt rigorous safety and health protocols.
One of the biggest risks to safety right now is the poor ventilation in many NYC schools. Ventilation is a critical issue, as closed and stuffy rooms will intensify the risks of infection and virus spread. Many schools have lousy or broken ventilation systems, and/or classrooms with windows that don’t open or no windows at all, as I pointed out in this article. According to a principal survey we did ten years ago, 40% reported they had classrooms with no windows – and I doubt the situation has improved..
According to a Daily News analysis of 2019 school inspection reports, 650 school buildings out of more than 1,500 had at least one deficiency in their exhaust fan; 700 buildings had a no “supply fans”; 900 no “heating and ventilating unit” & 442 with no central air conditioning . You can check your own school’s inspection report here.
While the DOE has promised to upgrade the ventilation systems in every school, and to close off classrooms where this proves impossible, there is little trust that they can accomplish that before school is scheduled to begin on Sept. 10.
While many parents and teachers have
been pushing for outdoor learning for safety reasons, the DOE has not provided them with any support to achieve this important goal. In fact, I
have heard that some schools have said the DOE is discouraging them from
providing outdoor recess or learning.
[You can sign
a petition to DOE to urge them to
support schools with outdoor learning goals and network
with other parents organizing around outdoor schooling.]
Another critical issue is the lack of testing with results fast enough to ensure that students and staff who are ill know to stay home and quarantine rather than infect others. Right now, many testing sites across the city take 5-15 days to deliver results, which is nearly useless. More and more, states are realizing that to safely reopen schools, they should adopt rapid antigen testing, which gives results within minutes and cost only $1-$2 each. Six governors from Maryland, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia have teamed up to buy large quantities of these quick testing kits, but not Governor Cuomo, for some reason.
Rather than join this consortium and help schools reopen safely, Gov. Cuomo has lambasted schools over the weekend for not having their own testing procedures in place, something they do not have the funds, the staffing or the expertise to do. Though he rightfully stepped in to help hospitals by purchasing PPE and helping to quickly expand testing sites when the COVID crisis first hit, he now acts that he has no responsibility to do the same to help and support schools in this difficult time.
Understandably, many parents are confused and ambivalent. Despite the Mayor’s spin that more than 700,000 students chose to engage in some form of in-person learning in the fall, it appears that fewer than half NYC parents registered any preference on the online survey, with 264,000 parents opting into remote learning and 131,000 blended learning. Many families seem to be waiting to see what the plan is for their schools, after which they can choose full-time remote learning at any time.
Principals are supposed to finalize their own plans and school schedules by August 14 in consultation with their School Leadership Teams. It would be great if schools could receive the help and support they needed from the city for to institute and expand outdoor learning, and from the Governor to create a rapid testing plan, so that families could be more assured of a safe learning environment for their kids in the fall.
For a thoughtful, phase-in plan to reopen schools that could serve as a potential model for others, see this proposal from the Urban Assembly Maker Academy.