NYC middle and high schools won’t offer in-person learning until 2021 at the earliest

Brooklyn’s Midwood High School
Brooklyn’s Midwood High School — as well as all middle and high school buildings across the city — will remain closed until at least 2021. (Cassi Feldman/Chalkbeat)

Middle and high school buildings across New York City will not reopen for in-person learning until 2021, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has yet to specify how long they will remain closed.

“From now until the Christmas break, the focus will be on the younger kids,” de Blasio said during a Monday appearance on CNN, citing the need to ramp up a random testing program that will be administered in every school weekly instead of the previous monthly testing protocol. “When we come back, my hope is we can then move quickly to middle school and high school.”

As many as 190,000 students in grades pre-K-5, as well as those with complex disabilities attending District 75 schools, will be allowed to return to their classrooms next week — as long as they previously signed up for in-person learning and have signed COVID-19 testing consent forms.

That leaves up to 145,000 middle and high school students, who previously opted for in-person learning, forced to learn remotely for now.

Given the small numbers of students who’ve returned to many buildings, when space and staffing allow for socially distant classrooms, some school buildings will be able to offer five days a week of in-person learning. City officials have not provided information on how many schools will be able to do this, but de Blasio said “most” schools that reopen next week would eventually be able to offer five days.  (An education department spokesperson said that calculation is based on attendance rates and classroom space assessments.)

City officials said schools are being asked to prioritize in-person instruction for students in temporary housing and those with disabilities — though an education department spokesperson did not say if the city has any plans to offer in-person programming for those students in middle and high school. They also did not mention English learners. 

Christine Madhere, whose ninth grade daughter had been commuting to Manhattan’s Art and Design High School about one day a week, was unfazed by the mayor’s decision to keep high school buildings closed for now. 

Christine Madhere with her daughter, Jadeyn. (Courtesy of Christine Madhere)

Madhere’s daughter was initially excited about returning to the classroom this fall, but due to social distancing rules, she didn’t have much time to socialize and many of her in-person classes were taught digitally, a common practice at high schools across the city.

“After a couple weeks [my daughter] said ‘I’ve had enough of this,’” said Madhere, who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “‘I’m going to school to sit at a desk in front of a computer, I’m not actually getting human contact.’”

Madhere has no plans to send her daughter back to the classroom this school year.

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The mayor also indicated that fully remote families will not be given another window to sign up in-person learning until there is a vaccine. That means a third of the city’s district school students, at most, will be able to return to their classrooms before a coronavirus vaccine is widely available, a process that could stretch for a significant chunk of the school year, if not all of it. 

Officials had told families over the summer they would have quarterly opportunities to opt back in for in-person learning, but at the last-minute this fall, the city reversed course, allowing just one chance to switch earlier this month.

In the meantime, the vast majority of the city’s students will learn virtually full time, putting enormous pressure to improve the quality of remote teaching. City officials have yet to offer a systematic plan to do that. When asked about the issue on Monday, de Blasio did not offer specifics, instead emphasizing the importance of returning to classrooms.

“The most important work I would argue is what we all need to do to just get by this crisis in general,” de Blasio said, referring to health and safety procedures. “Because even in this school year, we have the real possibility of bringing back a large number of kids once the vaccine gets pretty widely distributed.”

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