Most NYC schools have firmed up their hybrid schedules. But figuring out classroom assignments remains a challenge.

Schools will soon begin letting families know which days their children will attend in person.

More than 1,000 New York City schools got the go-ahead to follow one of the education department’s scheduling models. (Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat)

Schools will next week begin informing families which days their children will attend school buildings for those choosing the blended model of in-person and remote learning, education officials said Friday. 

But schools still need to figure out complicated staffing issues to create their classes ahead of the planned Sept. 10 start date. 

Of roughly 1,600 schools, nearly 1,070 schools got the go-ahead to follow one of the education department’s scheduling models, which for the most part allow students to attend one to three days a week. Most schools can only accommodate a third to a half of their students, since many classrooms can only hold up to about 12 children at a time while keeping students 6 feet apart.

Another 125 schools won approvals for exceptions that tweaked the department’s models. For instance, some schools requested that certain students attend five days a week — similar to the model the education department had already sanctioned for District 75 schools, which serve students with the most profound disabilities. Nearly 240 schools are still awaiting word on whether the department will grant their exceptions. All schools must submit their plans by Friday.

No schools requested fully remote schedules, according to Miranda Barbot, a spokesperson for the department.

Department officials have said that while they strongly favor the hybrid models the city set forth, schools could ask for exceptions if the proposed schedules weren’t feasible because of staffing levels or space restrictions, or because schools have “unique programmatic needs that must be addressed,” according to a department spokesperson.

For some schools that meant an all-school fully remote schedule. But several school communities said they felt discouraged from submitting such requests since the education department publicly said full-remote schedules wouldn’t be approved. Officials later said they would consider changing that stance, but still strongly opposed all-remote models if the whole school did not opt out of hybrid learning. 

At Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s coveted specialized high schools, the student newspaper reported that the local superintendent did not allow the former principal to submit a request for a full-time remote schedule. Parents said that the high performing Bard College Early High School Queens had to go back to the drawing board after creating a plan for a fully remote schedule that would have left the building open for the neediest students. Teachers at Upper Manhattan’s M.S. 324 said education department officials shot down their requests for one remote day a week for the entire school community. 

The news about Stuyvesant led Julie Zuckerman, the principal of a small Washington Heights English/Spanish dual language school, to table her idea for a remote-only schedule in the fall. 

Instead, Zuckerman, who leads Castle Bridge School, officially requested one of the education department models where students switch off between attending school three days one week and two days the next. About half of her students are choosing to learn from home full-time, which means she will have five students per classroom. 

Because her building will have some extra capacity, she’s asked the department to allow phasing in more students who would attend school five days a week so she can help meet the needs of working families struggling to find child care. (About 65% of Castle Bridge students were from low-income families in the 2018-2019 school year, the most recently available data.)

“Because as it is, Zuckerman said, “the plans don’t allow parents to go back to work.”

The school would only allow that if they go two and a half weeks without any positive virus cases in their community, she explained. City officials have said they plan to offer 100,000 slots for child care in the fall, but many worry that the number of seats will fall short of the need.

Despite Friday’s deadline for submitting school plans, Zuckerman said she wants to meet with her School Leadership Team again to decide if they should go back to the drawing table and request an all-remote schedule. 

She worries that having children come some days but not others will not only be confusing for them, but also too tough for their teachers, who will be managing multiple cohorts of students, to plan around. She also thought having all students remote would allow her and her teachers to focus on creating a more coherent virtual curriculum.

But while she’d prefer all of her students to go remote, she knows that’s not feasible for her families. So, she would keep the building open for students whose families need child care five days a week, emulating the Regional Enrichment Centers that opened this spring for children of essential workers. All students would still learn virtually, but students in the building would have a staff person supervising them. 

Now that schools are beginning to firm up their schedules, the next step is to create classes and figure out who will teach the students when they’re in school as well as on their remote days. They also need to determine who will teach the fully remote students. About 26% of students have so far requested to go fully remote. Roughly 15% of teachers have requested medical accommodations, but officials have not said how many will be granted. 

It’s still an open question for Zuckerman’s school, where all the classes are staffed with two teachers who instruct general education students alongside students with disabilities. She could split those teachers up — but doing so could risk skirting special education laws. Students with disabilities in those classes cannot be segregated from their general education peers, and they still require access to a special education teacher. Officials have still not answered how these kinds of co-taught classes — known as Integrated Co-Teaching — will work in a hybrid setting. Another complication could be how many of her 26 teachers work from home exclusively. One was approved to work from home, she said, while another teacher, a paraprofessional, and two speech therapists have requested such accommodations.

“We have two teachers and at least one [paraprofessional] for each class, so how are those people going to decide how to staff it?” Zuckerman said. “And it’s certainly trickier when you have one person in the team who’s home — that puts much more pressure on the teacher. No one is grumbling about it, but it certainly has the potential to really wear on people. There’s no guidance.”

With less than a month to the first day of school, a growing number of principals are asking the city for more time. The union representing school administrators this week asked to delay building re-openings until the end of September. A group of principals from Brooklyn’s District 15 has asked to allow students to attend virtually the first two weeks of school, as staff readies the buildings and receive trauma-related training. The schools would then phase in students over the following several weeks. 

The mayor dismissed the idea, but the education department has not yet posted an official school calendar.

Christina Veiga contributed.

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