City wants ‘maximum number’ of kids back into school buildings by fall, but details remain unclear

Photo courtesy of the Mayor’s Office

As New York slowly reopens and the number of coronavirus cases remains below the city designated threshold, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday that his administration will continue to push for students to return physical classrooms by the fall. But details on what reopening will look like remain sparse. 

“I’ve had conversations in great detail with Chancellor Richard Carranza and First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan, and the goal remains to get the maximum number of kids back into our school buildings where they can learn best, but that is wholly contingent on the health dynamics,” said de Blasio during a Friday press conference. The public school system’s  1.1 million students have been learning from home since March.

Mayor de Blasio closed public schools, forcing  1.1 million students to begin learning from home in mid-March, at the urging of teachers, students and union leaders worried that keeping students in crowded classrooms, subways and buses would further spread the novel coronavirus.

Since then, the Department of Education has come under fire repeatedly for its handling of the transition to remote learning. Thousands of students without computer or internet access, necessary for at-home learning, failed to receive one of 240,000 city-promised iPads or laptops a month into remote learning. Parents and teachers have decried a lack of transparency from the department, for waiting over a month into the coronavirus crises to begin releasing the number of school personnel killed by the virus.

Others have questioned the accuracy of the department’s remote learning attendance policy, the benefits of switching to a pass/fail grading system. Parents and educators have questioned the department’s management of remote learning again in May when the DOE announced 180,000 students were slated for summer school this year. Only 15,000 students in New York City attended summer classes last year. 

The statement comes two days after the United Teachers Federation sent a letter to teachers, principals, and superintendents stating that the Department of Education plans to reopen schools in three months under a hybrid model. On Tuesday, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent an email with some details on how school reopening would look in September, as first reported by Chalkbeat, which includes more personal protective equipment, increased cleaning, coronavirus screenings, a mix of in-person and remote learning, rolling start dates for different groups of students, and split schedules to allow for social distancing. 

“The virus has put us in an impossible place, so no plan will be perfect. We will all need to be flexible,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew wrote in the letter. “Things we have taken for granted, such as how and where we do our work, have already been upturned during this remote era. When we return to school buildings, we will not pick up where we left off in mid-March either. These changes must be made for safety’s sake.”

But despite concerns from parents and teachers, the mayor again evaded providing more details on what classes will look like for the city’s 1.1 million public school students this autumn. In an effort to cement a future return to school plan, the DOE released a “Return to School 2020” survey for students and families about three hours after the mayor’s press conference ended on Friday.

“We cannot predict what September will look like and we are exhaustively planning for a wide range of possibilities,” DOE spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon wrote in an email. “This survey will assist us in understanding the concerns and considerations of families, as we develop a reopening plan that meets their needs while ensuring their safety.” The scenarios listed in the survey, which can be found on the DOE website, social media channels and at Regional Enrichment Centers, are based on “public health information we have right now, and should not be taken as a wholly inclusive set of considerations,” O’Hanlon added in the email.  

All parents and students in the sixth grade and higher are encouraged to fill out the survey, which takes approximately seven minutes to complete, before Monday, June 22. 

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