City Announces Plan to Reopen Schools After Temporary Halt to In-Person Learning

Mayor Bill de Blasio describes the City’s plan to reopen schools on November 29, 2020. Image Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Elementary schools will reopen December 7th but middle and high schools will remain remote only for the foreseeable future. On November 29, 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza announced a plan to reopen New York City public schools for in-person learning after temporarily shutting schools on November 19th after the City’s COVID-19 positivity rates exceeded three percent. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this school year started with remote learning and transitioned into a hybrid approach, with schools determining rotating schedules for students to allow for students to have both in-person and online learning for families that wanted that option. Families could also choose to opt for remote online learning only. To let the hybrid approach move forward, the City made a deal with teacher and school administrator union leadership that if the City’s COVID-19 average positivity rates exceeded three percent, school buildings would automatically be shuttered and all students would transition to online learning. The three percent threshold was finally reached two weeks ago, and schools abruptly transitioned to online learning only starting November 19th. For CityLand’s prior coverage of the DOE’s hybrid plan, click here.

The transition received criticism from elected officials and families. Some argued that it did not make sense to shutter schools and burden parents with managing childcare, education and working while indoor dining, gyms and other high risk personal service businesses were allowed to remain open. Others argued there was not much evidence to suggest that schools were significant sites of COVID-19 transmission. On Twitter, Council Member Mark Treyger, Chair of the Education Committee, argued that some students were already struggling with remote learning due to lack of access to devices or reliable internet and Council Member Costa Constantinides expressed disappointment with the lack of communication and abrupt announcement that schools would be closing. 

The City’s new plan focused on students in elementary schools and programs for students with disabilities. Students in 3-K and Pre-K programs and students in grades K through 5 who opted for in person learning will return to school on Monday, December 7th. District 75 schools that serve students with disabilities will return to in-person learning on Thursday, December 10th. Middle and high schools will remain remote for now. Schools that are in State-designated orange or red COVID zones will also remain remote only.

As part of the return to in-person learning, every school will conduct weekly random COVID-19 testing for 20 percent of the school’s in-person population. Consent forms will be provided for all students in grade 1 or above, teachers and other school staff and must be submitted in order for a child to return to in-person learning. 3-K, Pre-K and Kindergarten students are excluded from random testing. Limited medical exceptions will be granted upon the submission of a form of consideration. Families who choose not to consent to random testing will be moved to fully remote instruction. For more information about how to find and submit this consent form, click here

While schools will continue to work on a hybrid model, schools will begin to work toward accommodating students for in-person learning five days a week where possible. According to the DOE, approximately 300,000 students have participated in in-person learning so far out of the 1.1 million total students within the NYC public school system. While families have previously had multiple windows to opt in to in-person learning previously, in-person learning will only be available to families that have already selected that option.

Mayor de Blasio stated, “Reopening our buildings is paramount to our city’s recovery from COVID-19. That’s why we are doubling down on the safety and health measures that work to make in-person learning a reality for so many of our students.”

Chancellor Carranza stated, “Getting our kids back in school buildings is one of the single most important things we can do for their wellbeing, and it’s so important that we do it right. The unparalleled value of in-person learning for students has been evident in the first few months of school, and we will do everything we can to keep our schools safe and keep them open for the duration of this pandemic. 

The announcement still left questions about managing the current difficulties in accessing online learning. 

Council Member Brad Lander discussed how the City’s plan essentially excludes a majority of students from in-person learning and tweeted, “. . . If we are going to ration full-time, in person learning to just 10% to 15% of students (which is essentially what the mayor announced today) we should target seats to homeless students & those w/special needs. Where we’re sticking with hybrid in-person learning (which will be in many schools, despite what the mayor said today), we should let families opt back in each quarter, as the City promised initially. On public health data: the City would no longer use the 3% citywide positivity rate. But nor would they start using rates from in-school testing. Using in-school testing rates, matched to zip-code/district rates for elementary schools, would make far more sense. In zip-codes with high positivity rates, expanded in-school testing would either: (a) build confidence that Covid-19 is not spreading in the schools, or (b) if it were starting to spread, drive a faster decision to close that district’s schools.”

Council Member Mark D. Levine, Chair of the Health Committee, shared a similar sentiment over Twitter and stated, “To protect schools (and the whole city), we need to pause indoor dining, close gyms, tell NYers to work from home etc. We lost 11 days on this since schools were closed last week. In that time daily cases are up 26 percent (now 2k/day).  We can’t afford to lose another day.”

By: Veronica Rose (Veronica is the CityLaw fellow and a New York Law School student, Class of 2018.)


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