With questions still looming over topics such as safety, cleanliness and daily operations, it’s unclear if all parties involved - from teachers to administrators to city officials - will be able to get on the same page before fall arrives.
“No one has figured this out,” said first deputy chancellor Donald Conyers. “At the moment we are endeavoring every day, and have been since the close of our school buildings in March, to continue figuring this out so that we are ready for our students in September.
“As time goes on there will be more answers, there will be different answers and there will be some of the same answers,” he added. “Because what we’re doing is ensuring that we take care of health safety, as well as the quest to educational excellence.”
The current proposal offered by the city is one of “blended learning,” a hybrid of remote learning and part-time in-person instruction, that gives families options based on their comfort level.
It will be up to school principals to choose from one of three learning models to accommodate its needs, depending on factors such as building size, student population and family preferences.
Each model involves various rotations of either two or three cohorts of students that will receive in-person learning. In any given model, students will report to school between one and three days per week.
For District 75 schools, which tend to have smaller class sizes and cater to students with special needs, in-person instruction can be offered for all students if necessary.
Both models for these schools feature two main cohorts that will either alternate weeks in the building or split the week with alternating Mondays. There is also an option for a third cohort, which would attend in-person classes daily.
Families can opt for full-time distance learning as well by responding to a learning preference survey by August 7.
Students can withdraw from “blended learning” in favor of a fully remote model at any point throughout the year, and families will be given the option to opt into in-person schooling at each quarter mark.
Schools are expected to make their final decisions on which model they intend to move forward with by August 14, but an “alarming lack of direction” in the DOE’s plans has drawn concern from the union that represents school administrators as to whether the city’s timeline for reopening is achievable.
“It is abundantly clear that the DOE has not provided you with the guidance and relevant information necessary for you to effectively plan for the opening of school buildings and offices in the fall,” reads a July 22nd letter from Mark Cannizzaro, head of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, to its members.
“We know that for the benefit of those you lead, you will continue to forge paths forward, to be creative and to search for solutions to seemingly intractable problems,” Cannizzaro continues. “Yet, as each day passes without clear guidance and safety assurances, it becomes less likely that we will be ready to reopen in September.”
The letter also came with a list of 141 questions that the union believes must be answered by DOE before schools can reopen in good faith. Included are inquiries about PPE, safety, sanitation and the procedure for when a case of COVID-19 is suspected or confirmed.
“Teachers are resilient, and those of us that are able to will go back to school,” said Leona Fowler, a support teacher who works with special education students in Queens. “The bottom line is, though, that we don’t want to go back and be guinea pigs.”
Fowler described the mental, physical and emotional toll taken on teachers and administrators over the last quarter of the school year, as they navigated remote learning in volatile conditions that seemed to present new challenges each day.
She expressed concern that without clear commitments from DOE, the same chaos may ensue within the city’s schools come September.
“We are fearful that if schools had a lack of soap, toilet paper and paper towels before the pandemic,” Fowler posed, “how can the city guarantee that schools will have enough masks and sanitizer to make sure we’re all safe?”
DOE has maintained that it will provide schools with supplies such as hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, cleaning supplies and PPE at no cost to individual school budgets.
Facilities will be deep cleaned every night using what Conyers described as “electrostatic disinfectant sprayers,” and building HVAC systems will be upgraded.
Students, teachers and school staff will be required to wear masks and keep social distancing guidelines of six feet between individuals. Students showing symptoms of infection will be supervised in an isolation room, required on all school sites, until they are picked up by a family member.
Officials say it is still too early, however, to establish detailed plans for what will happen when a case of coronavirus is confirmed within a school community.
Despite the uncertainties, some teachers and administrators are finding space for positive transformation amid the crisis.
Janet Huger, principal at K677/East New York Elementary School of Excellence, for example, has spent the last four months leveraging the loose ends left by unstructured DOE guidance to format distance learning in a way that works best for her students.
“I’m hearing an opportunity to talk about 21st century education,” she explained, “Particularly in regards to closing those disparity gaps.”
In addition to making sure all students were able to access devices with online capabilities, Huger and her staff also made a concerted effort to engage parents as much as possible in their children’s remote learning.
Through regular virtual meetings, the school was actually able to invoke a more visible parental presence than during a regular school year, and that is a practice Huger is considering taking into the future.
Regardless of what is to come in the fall, Huger is dedicated to prioritizing the educational and emotional needs of her families. She says she will continue to roll with the punches when it comes to reopening and the challenges that may come with it.
“The important part is the children,” asserted Huger. “To make sure they aren't affected by this thing that is out of our control.
“I have to lead by example,” she added. “I can prefer whatever I want to prefer, but the reality is that they could say tomorrow that schools won’t open in September. Nature is talking, and it’s just better be flexible.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that New York’s schools will be permitted to reopen if the local COVID infection rate remains below 5 percent, and is expected to make a definitive call in early August.
As of Sunday, the citywide rate of positive cases was reported as 1.2 percent.