Thermal imaging and stretching stations? Here’s what NYC schools could look like when they reopen.

Classroom of empty desks and chairs.

Nobody knows yet what New York City schools will look like next year or even when exactly buildings will reopen, but it is becoming increasingly clear the new norm will include staggered schedules and social distancing within classrooms — and that will be no easy logistical lift for the nation’s largest school system. 

“If the health conditions allow and we can keep our kids safe, our families safe, our educators safe, our staff safe, we want the maximum number of kids to come back to school,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday. “But we expect that to be with social distancing requirements, face coverings, and therefore there’ll be real capacity issues.”

As the city’s roughly 1,800 public schools, serving some 1.1 million students, figure out how to revamp their buildings to accommodate health requirements in a world reshaped by the coronavirus, one charter school is a few steps ahead: Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School tapped five leading design firms to help come up with some concrete solutions for its community to consider.

The Downtown Brooklyn middle and high school created a 100-page toolkit with various models for reopening K-12 schools, including how to redesign entrances, classrooms, and bathrooms to ensure social distancing and enhance sanitation. 

Each of the five firms came up with different proposals to illustrate an array of options that could inform how schools across the city operate in the fall. The toolkit, however, comes with a major caveat: It does not include price tags, and with looming budget cuts, many school officials fear they might not have the funding or staffing to make significant changes.

The charter held a virtual event last week with the American Federation of Teachers, a national union, to discuss its toolkit — opening up a broader conversation about the immense challenges of restructuring the physical environment of schools amid budget and staffing constraints. Many school buildings are outdated as it is, making COVID-19 response plans an even heavier burden, educators said.

“The chronic underfunding of our school systems have really highlighted many of the challenges that we have,” said Lisa Thomas, Associate Director of Educational Issues at the American Federation of Teachers. “This is an opportunity to really hone in on some of the challenges that many of our underserved communities have.”

What works for one school, however, might not work for another. 

“In a school system as large and diverse as ours, no one-size-fits-all model will work,” the New York City teachers union president, Michael Mulgrew, wrote to educators last week. “With tools and guidance from [the education department], each school community will be tasked with designing the program plan that works best for its staff, students and families.”

Still, the Brooklyn Lab toolkit looks at some of the most common logistical concerns — around temperature checks, social distancing in classrooms, and minimizing shared surfaces — with an eye toward what could work when school buildings reopen. Here are some highlights:

Entering school might take a while.

Because of the potential health screenings at entrances and social distancing requirements, schools will have to be more strategic about how students and staff enter each morning. Schools will need to prevent excessively long lines and wait times, but they might not have the space to do that inside their lobbies. They also might share busy sidewalks with residential and commercial buildings. Compounding the problem, many campuses host multiple schools, which will have to work together to sort out entry schedules. While some schools might end up using multiple doors, there could be security and staffing concerns about monitoring more entrances. 

In developing suggestions for Brooklyn Lab, design firm PSF presented a bold solution: to create exterior scaffold staircases to prevent overflow onto sidewalks. Their model for Brooklyn Lab shows that adding two exterior staircases would allow 1,000 socially distanced students to enter the building within 30 minutes. This firm also suggested working with neighboring shops to make sure that school entry times don’t “conflict with the business hours.” 

Lining up could double as learning time.

Students could be spending more time waiting in line, and schools could use that time for additional educational opportunities. PSF suggested making its scaffolded stairs a “new front porch,” where students could get a quick breakfast or even sanitize their phones before entering the building. 

Similarly, a blueprint from design firm WXY Studio shows that Brooklyn Lab could implement “sidewalk activities.” Possible activities include a Q&A with a college counselor, 15 minutes of conversational Spanish, or morning stretching stations. 

Here’s how temperature checks could be done.

Health screening upon entry is a key requirement for reopening, teachers union president Mulgrew wrote last week. Again, this will require proper staffing, and Mulgrew noted that every building will have at least one nurse — something that the education department pledged would happen as the pandemic engulfed the city. At the school-based enrichment centers for children of essential works, visitors undergo daily temperature checks, but these centers have sparse attendance. 

Taking students’ temperatures could be instantaneous if schools are using advanced thermal imaging stations. Those stations range anywhere from $5,000 to over $20,000, according to design firm SITU.. Schools could also use cheaper, but slightly more delayed and labor intensive, infrared temperature guns.

Design firm WXY Studio, which proposed splitting students into two groups arriving at 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. at two separate entrances, predicted three students could enter per minute, accommodating for temperature checks.

Physical partitions could increase classroom capacity.

In its guiding principles for schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students sit six feet apart, do not share classroom materials, and stay with the same teacher throughout the day. This could pose challenges for many schools. Overcrowding, for instance, has plagued New York City public schools for years, and more than a third of students had classes with more than 30 students this fall. 

The city’s education department is exploring how to reduce the number of students sharing spaces through staggered schedules. 

For Brooklyn Lab, PSF suggested alternate attendance days for middle and high school students to maintain 50% capacity at the Brooklyn school. For example, middle school students would attend on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays for one week. The next, they’d only attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

In terms of keeping students apart within the building, one idea that designers proposed for Brooklyn Laboratory is to place physical barriers between students. While physical barriers might cost more than simply social distancing, classrooms could accommodate more students when using them, according to the firm.  

Hands-free technology could keep restrooms cleaner. 

Brooklyn Lab’s restrooms could be renovated to limit touching surfaces, according to design firm PBDW. That means hands-free sinks and toilet flushometers. And traditional water fountains could be replaced with bottle-filling stations. Similarly, the firm proposed making doors hands-free through foot controls.

Again, this is likely a pricey retrofit for many in a public school system where some bathrooms don’t even have adequate soap or toilet paper. And given proposed city and state budget cuts to education, it could be difficult for schools to implement these changes. 

Fewer surfaces could mean improved sanitation. 

Though the CDC has reported that surface transmission is not the main source of spreading the virus, it still emphasizes that people can contract COVID-19 by touching shared objects or surfaces. 

Schools could see more hand sanitizing stations near doors and shared equipment, such as copiers. There would also be less use of shared equipment in general to reduce contact with high-touch surfaces.

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