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NYC scrambles to find new school space as Cuomo gives go-ahead for classes

Mayor Bill de Blasio visits a free food program at PS 1 in Manhattan, April 7, 2020. | Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

BY RACHEL HOLLIDAY SMITH, THE CITY. This article was originally published on by THE CITY

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Governor Andrew Cuomo on Friday finally gave New York City the green light to reopen schools in September.

But one part of the plan for in-person learning is still very much up in the air: extra space for socially-distant schooling and for child care to keep kids, teachers and their families safe from the coronavirus.

In mid-July, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carranza announced the city would search for external spots for schools to use for instruction and programming.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza speaks at a news conference at the Office of Emergency Management, March 2, 2020.

Shortly afterward, public call-outs popped up in local officials’ newsletters, on the website of the School Construction Authority and from the Real Estate Board of New York, asking: Does anyone have space for city schools?

“Ideally, the SCA would like to identify feasible and move-in ready spaces that can be occupied with little to no work this September 2020,” read a memo from REBNY, sent out to its more than 17,000 members by email earlier this week.

The message, relayed to REBNY by the SCA, asks for sites with rooms of no less than 650 square feet, dedicated entrances and bathrooms and “outdoor play space preferred but not mandatory.”

A Restaurant in the Mix

In one notice posted in Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s newsletter last week, those with suitable space were directed to email the construction authority “ASAP.” Brewer’s staff has identified some possibilities — from a sprawling Chinese restaurant to a cathedral.

Included in the hunt are child care facilities for 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as “learning labs for K-8 students during weekdays when students are not receiving in-person instruction” in a school, the newsletter notice said.

With about a month to go until the school year is set to begin, however, there’s little clarity around details about the plan. 

When THE CITY asked a slew of questions — including what the vetting process for external space would look like, what types of programming would take place outside of school buildings and how many applicants had replied to the call so far — the SCA referred inquiries to the mayor’s office for answers. 

Avery Cohen, a mayoral spokesperson, declined to comment, pointing instead to comments de Blasio made on Tuesday about the plans, in which he said the SCA is “moving apace.”

“We are definitely finding some spaces for that, and for child care, and we’ll have much more to say on that in the coming days,” the mayor said at his daily briefing.

Virginia Breen/THE CITY
The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights has been identified as a possible space for a school or child care.

The DOE did not respond to THE CITY’s questions. On Friday, the DOE released its facilities plan submitted to the state department of education, which included a brief section on “Leased Facilities and Tents.”

“NYCDOE will ensure that any new facilities being considered for leasing will be reviewed with DOB/OFP for a preliminary evaluation. No firm decision on leased sites has been made to date,” it reads.

No additional information has been made public. Real estate agents working with SCA to find space could not offer further details, referring questions to City Hall.

A Spreadsheet of Possibilities

In response to the public request, Brewer’s office began gathering details about Manhattan sites that could become usable space for schools.

Staffers and interns called nonprofits, churches, community centers and other groups with versatile space, collected the information into a spreadsheet and sent it to Carranza on Friday.

The list also includes plazas, privately-owned public spaces and office and hotel spaces “not currently in use,” the letter from Brewer’s office read.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

“As you and your superintendents and principals struggle with re-opening plans, we know that finding alternative spaces for classrooms, lunch and gym/recreational activities is key,” Brewer wrote.

Brewer noted that while her office “could not vet each space to your standards, let alone negotiate cost,” her staff supplied details that included size and accessibility compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Some options her office found: 850-seat capacity at the 20,000-square-foot dim sum restaurant Jing Fong in Chinatown, room for 2,500 seats at St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, and 75,000 square feet at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

‘Not Enough Has Been Done’

Meanwhile, some parents like Alina Valdes, a Brooklyn mother of two, were scrambling to make plans amid uncertainty about how schools will operate.

She’s tentatively decided to send her 5-year-old son to public school for kindergarten in September, but has not ruled out private school.

“I do want him in school, of course safely, and I feel like not enough has been done,” she said of the city’s plans.

Valdes works as a physical therapist in a hospital and her husband works from their Midwood home. She said remote learning is not a sustainable option for her son. Her 3-year-old daughter attends a private day care.

She has many unanswered questions ahead of the school year, like what exactly will happen on the days her son is not in the classroom, and why older students couldn’t do remote learning, to free up “space for younger kids who actually do need the one-on-one.”

“I am worried about what’s going to happen again,” Valdes said. “I can’t stay at home. And we don’t have information.”

On Friday, the leader of the teacher’s union questioned the safety of reopening schools in person. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew has previously cast doubt on the city’s ability to contact trace and test within schools.

The mayor defended his administration’s plan for reopening at a press briefing earlier in the day, saying “the bottom line here is we have been working on all fronts to make schools safe.”

“Do not forget for a moment, every classroom will be socially distanced. Every part of the school will be socially distanced,” he promised.

After Cuomo’s announcement, de Blasio doubled down.

“We’re committed to getting this right,” he posted on Twitter. “We will reopen safely.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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