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Here’s what we know (and don’t) about reopening NYC school buildings

November 24, 2020 Christina Veiga and Reema Amin, Chalkbeat New York
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This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

What will it take to reopen New York City school buildings?

Since closing classrooms last week amid rising coronavirus cases, Mayor Bill de Blasio has not been able to answer that question — though he has promised to have a plan this week as he and Gov. Andrew Cuomo work out the details.

The citywide shutdown comes just two months after school buildings reopened for this school year. Now, the pause has handed the country’s largest school system a second chance to craft reopening plans.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The firsthand experience gained from the city’s brief experience with in-person learning has brought into sharp relief some bright spots — rates of the virus were low inside buildings, city testing showed, and many teachers and students were relieved to be back in classrooms. But it also highlighted deep challenges when it comes to staffing schools, serving children who already face learning challenges, and providing child care for working families.

That has some advocating for a reopening plan that looks much different than the last.

Ultimately, the city’s back-to-school plans will depend on whether parents feel comfortable with their children returning to classrooms. Most have opted for remote learning, and the city has seen little uptake in Learning Bridges, its child care program. Cases of the coronavirus, meanwhile, are creeping upwards.

Here’s what we know about what the latest return to classrooms might look like, and how advocates would like to see those plans improved.

Will schools require more coronavirus testing?

One thing that is certain: Returning to classrooms will require more testing for COVID-19 in schools, de Blasio has said.

As soon as next week, de Blasio expects the state to mark the city as an “orange zone,” he said Monday. That mandates schools remain closed for at least four days but at the same time provides a possible path to reopening for in-person students and staff if they first test negative, followed by a quarter of in-person students getting tested on a weekly basis.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, has cast doubt on the city’s ability to scale up weekly testing for hundreds of thousands of students, saying there may need to be city-specific rules for reopening. De Blasio acknowledged that it will be a massive undertaking, but said, “It absolutely can be done.”

Yet 21 Brooklyn school buildings shuttered last month that could have reopened under the governor’s plan have stayed shut for weeks, raising questions about the mayor’s optimism.

The city is already laying the groundwork for ramped up testing, and it will now be mandatory to consent to testing before a student returns to class, de Blasio said.

“When we reopen everyone who comes into that school building, all the kids have to have a testing consent on file so we can test them whenever we need to, because testing is going to become more of the norm,” the mayor said last week.

That could be a tall hurdle for city schools: Before classrooms closed, 117,000 students had returned consent forms, according to the New York Post. Since the beginning of the school year, about 280,000 students have attended in-person classes at least once, attendance figures show.

Before the systemwide shutdown, 2,805 students and staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus since Sept. 14, according to data from the “situation room,” which coordinates test and trace investigations at city schools.

Who will return to classrooms first?

De Blasio, at this point, has indicated he plans to essentially repeat what he did in September, first bringing back students in District 75, who have the most complex disabilities, followed by pre-K students, followed by elementary school, and then middle and high school.

Remote learning can be particularly hard for young students who are just learning to read and require more parent supervision to log into virtual classes and stay engaged. Many students living in homeless shelters still don’t have access to WiFi or stable connection to cell service to use hotspots or their city-issued, internet enabled iPads.

And students with disabilities — the majority of whom are not enrolled in District 75 schools — can struggle without in-person support and the stable environment that schools often provide. Making matters worse, families who have children with disabilities say they have been turned away from the city’s Learning Bridges program, which was set up to provide free child care on the days students are not in school.

Will students get to attend more days in person?

So far, it seems like the city is not planning to deviate much from its current hybrid model, in which students only attend in-person classes between once and three times a week, to allow for social distancing.

De Blasio also said he planned to allow students to attend more days — if their schools have space due to low in-person attendance. Calls are growing louder for the city to focus on providing in-person instruction for the students who may need it most.

“We continue to hear from families that they want more in-person instruction because remote learning does not work for their children,” said Kim Sweet, executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children, which works with families who have children with disabilities. “The mayor must consider the enormous impact on these students.”

City Council Education Committee Chairman Mark Treyger and others have pushed for the city to offer full-time, in-person instruction to students most at risk for falling behind, including students who are learning English as a new language, as well as the city’s youngest students.

Since high school students could more likely adapt to remote learning more easily than younger children, Treyger and others have suggested using high school buildings for younger and more disadvantaged kids. Many New York City high schools are already offering fully remote learning, with students logging into virtual classrooms even on the days they’re in classrooms.

Still, offering full-time learning in classrooms, even for just a sliver of the city’s student population, is likely to present huge staffing challenges. There were more than 87,000 students in pre-K alone last year, and more than 231,000 with disabilities, many of whom are supposed to be learning alongside typically developing peers as opposed to being segregated.

Before buildings closed, principal Julie Zuckerman was planning to bring 40 more children in for in-person learning at her small elementary school in Washington Heights, for a total of 80 children in the building for part of the week. She was also interested in keeping some of those children, whose parents are essential workers, in the building every day.

“We are already doing a much better job with remote learning, and there is a way to go,” Zuckerman said. “But we do know that there are some kids who either, because of the technology or because there is not enough space at home or someone who can help the kid with getting online or just sort of organizing the day, that for those kids they really need to be in school or in a staffed situation if they are going to get the benefit of any instruction.”

Will the closure threshold get another look?

The mayor set a conservative threshold for closing down schools to help win the confidence of parents and teachers — who had threatened a strike over this summer. That threshold was a 3 percent positivity rate over a rolling, weekly average.

But with the trigger for closure set off just two months after reopening school buildings, many are now wondering whether a single, citywide approach to shutdowns is the best way forward, especially as COVID-19 testing in schools has revealed few infections.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew is now advocating for a more targeted, geographical approach. The city and state have already taken that route before, closing down schools in October in only some neighborhoods that had seen infections spike.

“We don’t think the whole system has to go remote if large areas of the city have kept transmission rates low,” Mulgrew wrote in a public letter released Sunday.

There are real questions, though, about whether such an approach would help slow the spread of coronavirus. New York City offers parents a wide degree of school choice, which means that many ride on public transportation or otherwise travel outside of their neighborhood to go to school. Even many kindergarteners — some 40 percent — attend a school outside their neighborhood, according to an analysis by the Center for New York City Affairs.

Such a move could also disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities, which have suffered from higher coronavirus rates.

What other approaches could the city take?

It seems unlikely the city will break dramatically with its original plans for opening schools. But there are options for substantially different approaches, which could provide more child care opportunities for parents and more in-person instruction for students.

Former Deputy Schools Chancellor Stanley Litow, who served on the mayor’s schools reopening committee this summer, has advocated for a staggered school day, with kids attending a morning or afternoon session every day. While this approach could provide more students with in-person instruction five days a week, it’s also expensive, with transportation and staffing challenges.

Another option could be to stick with remote learning, but to open child care centers, much like those operated by the city through this past spring. Those centers were staffed by volunteers, and provided free full-time care for the children of frontline workers. Bringing back such a model, expanded to serve students who struggle most with remote learning, could help parents who need full-time child care, and students who rely on schools for meals, who lack internet access, or face other challenges learning at home.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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