Lessons in nature: NYC schools cleared to hold outdoor classes, mayor says

FILE PHOTO:  The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Manhattan, New York City
FILE PHOTO: A New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer wearing a protective face mask watches as people gather in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., May 15, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

New York City schools now have the option to hold class outdoors, city officials announced on Monday. 

Principals have until this Friday, Aug. 28, to apply to use outdoor spaces like schoolyards, open streets or nearby parks as classrooms in order to get a response by next week, said Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Department of Education will accept applications on a rolling basis, according to spokesperson Miranda Barbot. 

The city will help find outdoor space for schools without available outdoor space particularly those located in 27 neighborhoods hardest hit by the coronavirus. 

Parent Teacher Associations, meanwhile, will be responsible for funding tents and outdoor teaching supplies which some argue will only exacerbate inequity among city schools.

The mayor and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza encouraged PTAs in wealthier communities, who they say have already started fundraising for outdoor equipment, to partner up and share resources with poorer schools.  

“A lot of what you need to do doesn’t really cost much at all and it can be done pretty easily,” de Blasio told reporters. “We are going to be supportive in every way we can but we welcome PTAs that want to chip in.” 

The belated announcement comes as tensions between the city and teachers grow.

Last week, the United Federation of Teachers threatened to strike if Mayor de Blasio did not delay the start of in-person learning until meeting a list of general health and safety requirements with the support of over 40 state and local elected officials. A growing number of principals are also calling to delay in-person classes as well. 

“Unfortunately, we are nowhere near ready,” principals from District 1 in Manhattan wrote in a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, de Blasio, and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. “PPE is not fully on site, new filters for HVAC systems have not yet been delivered, and exhaust fans to improve ventilation in student bathrooms have been installed in some buildings but are still without electrical connections.”

The school year is scheduled to start in two and half weeks on Sept. 10 but the Department of Education has yet to release data on how many of the city’s 1,800 public schools are ready to receive students from a ventilation and air-quality standpoint. 

“Though electrostatic sprayers have arrived at some buildings, the sanitizing solution has not and is back-ordered; moreover, the actual routine for spraying and the number of high-touch surface cleanings per day is unknown,” the letter for District 1 principals continues. Principals and assistant principals from Districts 15, 13, 9, 6, and 2 have sent similar letters to elected officials.

“There are many unanswered questions, shortages of in-person staff due to medical accommodations, and no time for the necessary training for staff on trauma-informed instruction and new safety protocols. We will also need additional time to work with our teachers to plan what social-emotional learning will look like during the first six weeks of school. “