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COVID-19 impact | What it would take for NYC schools to fully reopen this fall

Though New York City is on the cusp of a major reopening — including of its bars and restaurants at full capacity, as well as 24/7 subway service — it cannot completely return to normal without restoring its school system, with roughly one million students, to its pre-pandemic state.

May 17, 2021 / 05:00 PM IST
Meisha Porter, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, greets a P.S. 064 Robert Simon student as children return to school during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York City, New York, US on April 26, 2021. (PC-REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

Meisha Porter, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, greets a P.S. 064 Robert Simon student as children return to school during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York City, New York, US on April 26, 2021. (PC-REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

For over a year, Lilah Mejia has spent her days cooped up in her living room, supervising her five school-age children’s remote learning on a jumble of iPads and laptops. She is completely exhausted by the work, but at the moment, she is considering not sending her children back to their Lower East Side classrooms come fall.

She just isn’t sure whether New York City will keep them safe from the coronavirus.

Across the city in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, Renata Gomes is struggling with an entirely different frustration. Her daughter is technically back in her high school, but many of her teachers are working from home because of waivers granted for medical conditions. As a result, Gomes’ daughter and her classmates are still staring at screens, but from their physical classrooms. What Gomes wants is for the city to provide full-time, in-person classes in September — something her daughter and many children across the city don’t yet have access to.

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“When we talk about this fall, the teachers and administration keep talking about last fall,” said Gomes, a member of a newly formed parent group pushing for a return to normal schooling. “We understand, that was really tough, but this is an opportunity to go back to normal as much as possible.”


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Though New York City is on the cusp of a major reopening — including of its bars and restaurants at full capacity, as well as 24/7 subway service — it cannot completely return to normal without restoring its school system, with roughly one million students, to its pre-pandemic state.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised that all students who want to be back in classrooms will have full-time, normal schooling this September. Actually making that happen presents the mayor with one of his biggest post-vaccine challenges before he leaves office at the end of the year.

Though schools in the city have been open for at least some in-person instruction for months, nearly two-thirds of the system’s parents have chosen to keep their children learning from home, either because they fear the virus or are concerned about inconsistent school schedules. It will largely fall to de Blasio and his schools chief to convince those parents that classrooms are safe, while also making sure the district has the staffing and space to bring all those children back into school buildings — with teachers in every classroom.

As planning for the fall intensifies, anxious parents and educators are hoping the city can avoid the confusion of last fall, when a belated planning process forced the mayor to twice delay the start of in-person classes. Other large urban districts will be closely watching New York, the nation’s largest district, for clues, since the city has been ahead of many other big districts in at least partly reopening schools.

Interviews with Meisha Porter, the new schools chancellor, as well as with over a dozen parents, educators, union officials and public health experts underscored the complexities of reopening, and the urgency with which de Blasio must make crucial decisions about remote learning and medical waivers for teachers.

There are reasons to think the city can persuade at least some hesitant parents to send their children back into classrooms: Children 12 and over are now eligible for Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, which means that middle and high school students can be fully vaccinated by fall; New York has had partly, and in some cases, fully open classrooms for much of this school year, and there is strong evidence that safety measures have been effective in preventing outbreaks. Virus case counts are currently plummeting throughout the city.

“I want families to lean into: ‘I can plan for my baby to be back in school in September,’” Porter said in an interview. Asked how many students she expected to return this fall, Porter said, “I want them all back.”

Porter said the city will plan a blitz of town hall meetings over the next month, and will have educators, elected officials and religious leaders speak with parents about the return to classrooms. She is working with Michael Mulgrew — the president of the United Federation of Teachers and once a harsh critic of the city’s school virus-safety measures — to allow parents to visit school buildings this summer to learn about safety protocols.

“When you walk into a school in New York City, you know it’s safe,” Mulgrew said, adding that he wants all students back full-time in September. That message was amplified by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a speech on Thursday.

Though it is now clear that virus transmission has been extremely low in schools, only about 50,000 families who had been learning remotely opted back into classrooms when given the opportunity last month.

“The reasoning behind me keeping my kids at home is really simple: I don’t trust the government,” said Mejia, adding that she would not consider sending her children back until the city communicated much more clearly about its safety protocols for the fall. “It wasn’t even much of a thought,” she said of her choice to keep her children home this year.

It is not yet clear what options parents who are not ready to return to classrooms will have. The mayor has vowed to end the logistical morass of hybrid learning, which required alternating sets of students to cycle in and out of school buildings to allow for distancing. But as the virus situation has improved and good news about vaccines has piled up, he and Porter have been vague about the scope of online learning come fall.

It’s likely that there will be some kind of remote schooling, even if it’s limited to a small number of students who might be eligible because of vulnerable family members or medical or psychological reasons. The city might run such a program out of the Department of Education’s central office, or group remote students and teachers geographically, rather than having individual schools create their own remote options. Most Democratic candidates for mayor indicated last week during their first official debate that they would not support a full-time remote option this fall.

Even if all students return to school buildings, most schools will be able to fit them in classrooms — though not necessarily cafeterias and other common spaces — despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to maintain at least three feet of distancing, according to city and union officials. Still, experts said distancing may not be necessary at all as long as other safety measures like masking, frequent testing and good air circulation are maintained.

The CDC has advised that schools should maintain masking and distancing protocols through at least the end of this school year, though it’s possible middle and high schools will be able to loosen some of those protocols come fall for vaccinated students.

De Blasio said recently that the city was not planning to require eligible students to get a vaccine, but officials said the city would work with schools and pediatricians to help with parental consent and other logistics.

But vaccines alone will not get schools back to normal. Roughly 28% of teachers have been granted medical accommodations to work from home through June, which has prompted some large high schools in particular to offer only remote learning, even from physical classrooms.

That phenomenon, a glaring symbol of the contortions that hybrid learning has forced on schools, has been especially pronounced at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, where in-person students, monitored by aides, are taking classes taught virtually by teachers who are not physically in the classroom with them. Roughly 40% of teachers at Murrow, where Gomes’ daughter is a sophomore, are currently out on accommodation, among the highest percentages of any city school.

The UFT informed members in a recent email that the city would not “grant blanket accommodations for high-risk populations as it did this school year.” City officials are finalizing a new set of eligibility requirements for next school year. It’s likely that educators who have a medical reason for not being vaccinated will be allowed to work from home, but city officials expect that number to be very low.

The presidents of both the teachers’ and principals’ unions said they expected the number of accommodations to drop drastically, and did not signal that the issue would be a major conflict with City Hall.

Teachers have been eligible for the vaccine since January, and well over half have been vaccinated. But that has not changed the fact that some schools are offering only sporadic in-person classes, even for young children.

Yelena Zinina, a parent of a kindergartner at Public School 222 in Brooklyn, said her son had one or two days a week of in-person classes. “He thinks this is what school looks like,” Zinina said. Her son’s experience has made her skeptical about the likelihood of full-time schooling this fall.

Lack of faith in city government is widespread among parents, but is felt especially deeply by the many nonwhite parents who have kept their children learning from home. White students, who make up the smallest percentage of the overall school district, are overrepresented in reopened classrooms compared with their Black, Latino and Asian peers. Nonwhite and low-income New Yorkers have also had disproportionately high death rates from the virus compared with their white and affluent neighbors.

While some families who chose remote learning are set to send their children back this fall, others remain hesitant.

Jazmin del Valle, a parent in Washington Heights who chose remote learning for her two children this year, said she would feel comfortable sending them back in person only if her children’s school laid out their reopening plan soon. “Don’t wait until the last minute to plan something,” she said.

(Author: Eliza Shapiro)/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)
New York Times

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