On Wednesday, July 8, 2020, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan to reopen the country’s largest school system this fall. With the President demanding all schools open, the New York city debate shows the challenges. The DeBlasio plan revolves around a schedule that would have some students attend two days of school in a week with other students attending three days a week. These student groups would then reverse the next week in terms of attendance. A student not physically present for those days would be taking virtual and remote classes. The rotation and continued use of virtual teaching are necessary because class sizes would have to be dramatically reduced to maintain safety and health. This will require more teachers, especially because some teachers (up to 20 percent in New York City) may not be able to teach in person due to health risks.

Although the Mayor announced the plan’s outlines on Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would have the final say on any plan and design and that the state would not make that decision until August.

Before those two announcements, a few days earlier, New York City’s Comptroller released a detailed outline of the actions that the City would likely have to address and take to reopen. That Comptroller Scott Stringer plan included some of the following issues and information: 

  • Require consistent use of masks or face coverings for students and staff. 

Students in second grade and older should be required to wear a mask with some children in kindergarten and first grades possibly too young to wear masks properly so schools might consider face shields.

  • Mandate physical distancing

To maintain the proper distance between students requires many schools, particularly overcrowded ones, to stagger schedules and further limit in-classroom instruction for the coming year.

  • Establish consistent, small cohorts of students

Students are grouped in small, consistent cohorts each day, and the size of cohorts would likely be dependent on the individual capacities in each school building to maintain adequate physical distancing with smaller cohorts of 10 to 12 students the “new normal” for city classrooms.

  • Provide pooled testing, aggressive contact tracing and daily temperature scans

Testing at every school, providing free testing for students, families, and school staff prior to the first day of school. One possibility is pooled testing. If the pool shows a positive result, the individual samples are processed and can be traced back to the infected student.

  • Every school must have a full-time nurse on staff.

While there is a nursing shortage in New York City, the urgency of the current health crisis necessitates immediate action. Salary disparities partially cause the local nursing shortage in schools: school nurses hired by the Department of Education are paid more than school nurses hired by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

  • Have transparent and stepped-up cleaning protocols for every school building. 

Begin immediately to explore ways to prevent classroom surfaces from becoming infection points through the use of non-toxic, spray-on agents, or other new technologies.

  • Repurpose available spaces and identify outdoor spaces for learning activities

Conduct an inventory of classroom, cafeteria, and gymnasium space in every school building, including vacated office buildings and underused shared workspaces. This includes outdoor settings for some schools with courtyards, schoolyards or parking lots, weather permitting. 

  • Prioritize social-emotional learning, and ensure every school has a full-time social worker and guidance counsellor

Many students have experienced serious emotional trauma, particularly those who had significant mental health needs prior to the pandemic disruption. It will be critical to ensure that robust mental health services are in place across all schools and that there is a continuum of supports available specifically for students with significant mental health needs. At a minimum, every school must have a full-time social worker and guidance counselor on staff.

  • Make accommodations for high-risk teachers, administrators, and other school staff.

As many as 20 percent of teachers may need to work remotely at the start of the school year because they are at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. This includes educators who are older, have pre-existing conditions such as cancer or are immunocompromised. Given the proper tools and training, teaching staff working remotely could be assigned to facilitate remote instruction for groups of students or help provide curricular support for families and caregivers.

  • Increase Staffing in Classrooms

A model that requires class sizes of no more than 10 or 12 for social distancing purposes, and requires a significant percentage of students to learn remotely every day while up to 20 percent of teachers will not be able to return to school buildings safely – will not work without boosting the ranks of teachers: Establish a large-scale hiring pipeline through a CUNY professional training program for classroom paraprofessionals and work with existing teacher training programs to expand in-classroom experience for teacher candidates; Leverage educational non-profit partners to provide in-classroom supports. These partnerships must be preserved; Identify/reassign personnel working in central and field offices to provide in-classroom support with many field offices, and central staffers have prior classroom experience.

  • Sustain the capacity of the child care sector

There can be no broad-based return to work unless families—especially those with young children—have access to child care. In the short-term and in the absence of additional federal stimulus dollars for care, the City must engage providers in exploring new strategies and settings to safely increase child care access, while protecting the child care workforce. In addition, educational and youth non-profits that have provided after school and summer programming could be an excellent resource in helping to bolster traditional childcare providers.

  • Invest in high-quality remote learning

In the City, an individual student’s experience with remote learning over the past three months was largely determined by choices or capacities at the school level. Recent analysis suggests significant gaps by race and income. The Department of Education should provide more support to educators to improve remote learning through supervision, observation, and clear best practices about how to make robust instruction available. The DOE must assure families that all students will receive a rigorous and sufficiently challenging education, regardless of the time spent in an actual classroom.

  • Give every student a free internet-connected device.

If there is one takeaway from the City’s experience with remote learning, it is that a lack of technology greatly reduces children’s ability to connect with their school community and access resources they need to progress. The City should issue every student who needs a device when they enroll in public school. In addition to device distribution, students and their families must have reliable broadband internet access.

  • Engage and support parents and caregivers, in multiple languages

Parents are an indispensable partner in helping their children learn, and many parents have become more active in their children’s education during this time. A recent national survey of parents showed that a huge majority of parents have a heightened appreciation for their children’s teachers as a result of their involvement in remote learning.

In light of the complexity and cost of the task for the country’s biggest school district, currently operating in a state that, for the moment, has been able to control the spread of COVID-19 better, districts across the country will require billions more to operate safely. The President’s recent threats to defund or suspend federal funding is an approach that will make it more difficult to reopen schools. In addition, the approximate 10 percent of funding the federal government provides for state education budgets is significant but not the major funding, meaning he can threaten but not force schools. It is also unlikely the President has the authority to cut-off school funds appropriated by Congress.