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A Quarter of NYC Students Opt Out of School Buildings — and Go For Remote Learning

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A public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant was giving away free food during the coronavirus outbreak.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: ckbe.at/newsletters.

More than a quarter of New York City families who attend traditional public schools plan to start the 2020-2021 school year fully remote, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday.

That means roughly 264,000 students are opting to stay out of school buildings while another 736,000 children are set to participate in a hybrid schedule that combines in-person instruction one to three days a week, while learning at home the rest of the time.

About 120,000 other children attend charter schools, which have created their own fall plans, with some starting fully remote and others prioritizing younger learners or students with disabilities for in-school time.

“I’ve given the order to move forward only if we can do it safely and effectively and in a way that keeps our kids healthy,” de Blasio told reporters. “I know we can.”

The numbers reflected the vast desire of families to be back in school buildings, de Blasio said. 

An Early Glimpse

But Monday’s figures may be a preliminary look, since families can switch to remote-only learning at any time during the school year. (Those who filed for remote-only learning can only return to school buildings on a quarterly basis after the first quarter starts on Nov. 16.)

The numbers might not indicate how many families feel safe returning to buildings, rather, to some extent, point to families’ need for their children to be in school for part of the week as parents and guardians head back to work. 

Even with the hybrid schedule, however, many families will continue to need child care on the remote days as well as the school days, which will be 5.5 hours long. The city is expected to launch 100,000 child care slots for the days children are still in school.

Even with the hybrid schedule, many families will need child care on the remote days.

Remote learning was profoundly difficult for many families for various reasons, including trouble with accessing reliable technology and internet or difficulty navigating lessons, particularly for the city’s youngest learners, students with disabilities, and students learning English as a new language. 

Some families, who are on the fence and could potentially keep their children home, felt they had little information at this point in terms of what full time remote learning will look like. 

The education department, for instance, has said the vast majority of remote students would be taught by teachers from their school, but could not guarantee that.

Others might have held off from making a decision about the fall as they await their school’s final programming choice letting them know whether their children can attend school buildings five days every two weeks, three weeks or less.

Schools are expected to share schedules with families in the next two weeks, officials said. 

Teacher Presence Unclear

Figuring out how many days students can attend in person has posed incredible challenges for school leaders, who have been operating without knowing their in-school enrollment figures or the number of teachers who will be working remotely because of medical accommodations. 

Roughly 15% of teachers have requested medical accommodations to teach from home, meaning 66,000 others will report to buildings, Chancellor Richard Carranza said. The city, which had estimated up to 20% of teachers could work from home, has not yet said how many of these requests will be granted.

Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat

New York City is the only major urban school district planning to offer in-person classes in the fall. De Blasio underscored the city’s low coronavirus infection rate, which has hovered around 2% since June, as the reason why it’s possible. 

Schools will not open if the infection rate surpasses 3% over a seven-day average, the mayor said.

“If you look at what’s happening in other places, it probably causes you a certain amount of concern and a certain amount of doubt,” de Blasio said, “but we are not those other places.”

Public health experts have said it’s safe to reopen schools if various safety precautions are taken. The city has “very stringent standards” for reopening its buildings, the mayor added. “So long as we can meet those standards, we’re gonna be ready to serve our kids in September.”

Schools across the state are allowed to reopen because of New York’s overall low infection rate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday, setting the state’s infection rate threshold at 5%. Cuomo asked the state’s largest districts to hold more informational sessions with parents and teachers in order to build more trust about reopening plans.

‘Long Way to Go’

Despite being consulted on the reopening plans, the teachers and principals unions said the city has failed to address numerous concerns about the school system’s ability to reopen buildings safely. 

The United Federation of Teachers, or UFT, for example, has demanded a more robust contact tracing system for when someone in a school building tests positive for the virus. A caucus within the teachers union is exploring how to conduct sickouts as a way to get around laws prohibiting strikes.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew speaks at a 2018 City Hall news conference.

New York City Department of Transportation

“This is one step in the process of figuring out if schools reopen how to do it safely,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew in a statement about Monday’s announcement. “We have a long way to go. Many questions about safety and about blended learning are still unanswered.”

Along with the unions, some city lawmakers have questioned the city’s ability to pay for all the costs associated with preparing buildings in the fall given its financial situation. The education department has declined to say how much it will cost to buy protective equipment, such as masks, more sanitizer, and more cleaning equipment for all of its schools.

Ventilation Systems Eyed

Meanwhile, state education officials are urging Cuomo and the legislature to help districts pay for these increased costs, as the state faces its own financial crisis.

The education department has daunting tasks ahead with one month to go before the city’s Sept. 10 start date. Many schools don’t have full-time nurses — something de Blasio said Monday the city is “working on.” The teachers union said schools should not reopen unless every building had a nurse.

City officials also vowed to fix faulty ventilation systems — another sticking point with the union and something that public health experts have said is an important consideration for reopening schools.

De Blasio said a “few hundred” out of 58,000 of classrooms needed ventilation fixes, but did not provide specific figures. A New York Daily News analysis found that 650 school buildings last year had at least one documented deficiency with ventilation.

Some city officials and educators are pushing the department to allow more learning outdoors.

Many educators are skeptical that the city will follow through on promises of addressing ventilation systems. For example, officials last week told Chalkbeat that the overall system at Upper Manhattan’s M.S. 324 did not require repair. 

This week they told the Daily News that crews were scheduled to fix ventilation fans Monday. De Blasio promised Monday to shed light on the progress of systemwide repairs moving forward.

Maintenance crews have been working through the summer to update ventilation systems and filters, Carranza said. Schools will not open classrooms without properly functioning systems.

 That’s one reason why the education department is searching for alternate classroom space, Carranza said. Some city officials and educators are pushing the department to allow more learning to happen outdoors.

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