Back to school? Any NYC family can opt for full-time remote learning this fall

Amid coronavirus concerns, the New York City education department will allow students to choose fully remote learning in the fall. (Nathan W. Armes/Chalkbeat)

New York City families will be able to keep their children home this fall and opt for a full remote school schedule regardless of medical need, education department officials said Thursday. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio had previously indicated such an accommodation would be allowed, though he had not announced concrete plans. 

Allowing a full-time remote option is welcome news for families who are nervous about sending students back to buildings in the fall as parts of the United States are beginning to see a surge of new coronavirus cases. 

But it could also exacerbate inequalities already rampant in the public school system, with more affluent families hiring tutors or otherwise supplementing schoolwork for children remaining home. For younger children, at least, families who can continue working from home or may have more access to childcare may be more likely to opt for full-time remote learning. For older students, who may be working jobs themselves to help their families, however, it could provide needed flexibility. 

Families who want an all-remote schedule would receive more information “in the coming weeks” on how to register, according to the department. Officials did not release other details on how full-time remote learning would work, including who would teach the courses. 

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the union that represents principals and other school leaders, said “there been no discussion” of schools losing students from their rosters, and therefore, funding, if students opt for fully remote learning. He added that students will have multiple opportunities to opt back into in-person instruction. 

Opting out of in-person learning could potentially help schools as they face major staffing hurdles. The education department recently issued preliminary spaces estimates to schools, and told many they could only have about a third of their students in the building at a given time to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines. For example, a classroom typically holding 27 students might only be allowed to host nine.

“We know there will be sheer logistical challenges,” de Blasio said during a press conference Thursday. “We’re going to work with the scheduling realities to find a way, and we’re going to hope and pray in the meantime that the scientific community makes progress on this disease because that’s what will really open up the ability to get back 100%.”

The mayor, who has provided few details about reopening plans, also said that all staff and students would be required to wear masks in school buildings in the fall.

De Blasio said the city’s reopening proposal — which must eventually win approval from the state —  isn’t expected for at least a few weeks. The city education department is working with the state and the Board of Regents as it plans for September, Chancellor Richard Carranza said during Thursday’s press conference. The state has not yet requested a plan from the city to review, he said. 

Hours after the mayor’s press conference, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office warned that building reopenings could be out of the question completely, come fall. The decision to reopen the state’s roughly 700 school districts will fall on the governor’s office, Cuomo has said. 

“The Governor hopes schools will reopen but will not endanger the health of students or teachers, and will make the determination once we have more current information,” wrote Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, in a statement.

Individual schools will likely grapple for weeks on what next year will look like. At the same time they will need more teachers to cover smaller classes for in-person learning, schools must also allow staff apply for medical accommodations to work from home. Education department officials have estimated that up to 20% of teachers could choose that option because they are at high risk of severe coronavirus complications. School leaders can also request accommodations to stay home.

Cannizzaro said determining staffing levels will be one of the biggest challenges for principals in the coming year.

“If, in fact, we’re going to try to use all the available space in a school building to get as many students in as possible, there is going to be a real need to get staff in the building,” he said. “I actually don’t think it will be as realistic as people think it’s going to be.”

Officials declined to say Thursday whether staff with high-risk family members will be accommodated, too. Additional information will be sent to staffers by July 15, according to education department spokesperson Miranda Barbot.

Officials also have yet to outline a child care plan for teachers, many of whom have young children at home.  Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew ripped Mayor Bill de Blasio for not announcing such a plan yet for both school families and educators alike and fears the responsibility will fall on the education department, which he says is knee deep in school planning for the fall. 

“That’s the mayor’s responsibility,” Mulgrew said in an interview Thursday. “He knows his school system cannot accommodate every child every day.”

About 75% of families and 80% of students said they have some degree of comfort with sending students back in school buildings if virus precautions are taken, according to survey results education department officials released Thursday. Drilling down deeper, however, just 28% of families said they are “very” comfortable with children returning to classrooms, while the same was true for 25% of the student respondents. 

More than 300,000 families responded, along with about 118,000 students in grades 6-12. 

About a quarter of families and students said they would prefer learning at home full time in the fall. That rings true for Fatema Aktar, a South Ozone Park parent of two children, one in pre-K and another in first grade. 

“We commute using public bus and subway,” Akter wrote to Chalkbeat. “I do not feel safe to be in the public transportation with so many unknowns about COVID-19’s effects. So, I am OK with just having remote learning for the coming year, at least for the beginning.”

Schools will have to prove to families like Akter’s that they can safely welcome students into buildings. That includes having a nurse in every building, he said, and providing some regular reports about any positive cases that may turn up. 

“I’m assuming our goal would be to allow children, after some period of time, ‘Hey, you wanna come back? Look, everything’s worked out,’” Mulgrew said.  

Many working families, of course, won’t have the option to keep kids home from school buildings, and even a hybrid model of at-home and in-person learning will be a challenge. More than half of parents with children in pre-K through second grade — 52% — said they would need childcare if in-person classes do not resume full-time. The number was 44% for parents of children in grades 3 through 5. 

Students and parents said that they prefer to attend classes on alternating days — 48% and 53%, respectively — rather than every other week. 

There were some differences in the ways that students and their families want to see school re-start, and what they consider most important. For example, 58% of parents said they prefer live instruction at least once a day, while only 36% of students said so. Live instruction, which can be difficult for teachers to pull off while juggling their own responsibilities at home, was mandated for summer school. The education department has not tracked how many schools offered live lessons since school buildings were shut down in mid-March. 

Students also were more likely to want classes like art and physical education to be prioritized next fall, with 69% saying it was one of the top three most important factors — compared with only 48% of parents. 

Among parents, the highest percentage of responses came from Staten Island (37%), followed by Manhattan and Queens (each at 32%). At 26%, most student responses came from Queens, followed by Staten Island and Brooklyn at 21% each. 

Carranza planned to meet with principals Thursday to further discuss how many students they believe their schools could accommodate at once. After department officials sent  preliminary estimates of how many students could fit inside their individual buildings, based on the school’s size and the CDC’s guidance that children needed 65-square-feet, they asked principals to walk through their schools and confirm those numbers. 

Buildings will also be deep-cleaned regularly every night using electrostatic sprayers that “dispense disinfectant so that it adheres to surfaces without the need to physically touch them.” The education department plans to order 11,000 cases of hand sanitizer and 100,000 cases of disinfectant wipes, as well as “other cleaning supplies.”

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