Five weeks ahead of full school reopening, questions remain on how classes will look this fall

Back To School
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

With only five weeks until students return to classrooms, many questions on what health and safety protocols will look like in New York City public schools remain unanswered. And with Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing last Thursday he would be taking a week off to visit family, those answers will likely remain unanswered for at least another week. 

Roughly a month and a half before the new school year starts, New York state officials announced they would not issue health and safety guidelines for schools reopening next month placing the responsibility for crafting a reopening plan on local school districts. 

New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a statement last Thursday the state would not issue guidance due to the state disaster emergency being lifted on June 25. Zucker added in the statement school and school districts “should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible” and follow “guidance from the CDC and local health departments.” 

It remains unclear how frequently testing and tracing will take place within school communities, what a school closure policy might look like, what instruction will look like for unvaccinated students in quarantine and what schools will do if they can not abide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged three-foot social distancing recommendation. 

In a meeting with members earlier this week, President of the United Federation of Teachers Micheal Mulgrew said the DOE claims 50 public schools do not have the space needed for students and staff to maintain three feet of social distance. Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters, released a list of 73 Tier 1 schools that the department claimed earlier this year did not have enough space to accommodate social distancing requirements. The DOE did not confirm or deny the validity of the list, according to Gothamist, who first reported on the leaked list. 

In response, a department spokesperson said the agency looks forward to all students returning to buildings this fall and all schools “will safely serve every student in accordance with current CDC guidelines.” 

Shortly afterward,  New York City’s principal union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, sent an email to members encouraging them to submit budget requests for additional staff needed to help with social distancing. In addition, the union reminds members the DOE will be “redoubling” its efforts to ensure all schools are equipped with adequate ventilation, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies ahead of reopening and that schools will be allowed to use the cafeteria space for eating. The email notes the DOE will add ventilation units in cafeterias where needed. 

But it still remains unclear if the DOE will even enforce social distancing given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s changes to their COVID health and safety guidelines for schools. In July, the CDC stressed that schools should prioritize reopening fully even if they can not maintain three feet of social distance between students and adults at all times.

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