Yes, many NYC school buildings have reopened. But COVID cases frequently close them down.

A young boy in a black and orange hoodie conducts virtual learning on his computer, sitting at a black partitioned desk.
Since winter break, NYC schools have had to shutter for at least 10 days more than 700 times. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Maria Nicolai’s fourth grade son did not return to his classroom the week after winter break. Instead, Enzo’s school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, remained closed for another 10 days, after two coronavirus cases there tripped the threshold for a building-wide shutdown. 

The following week, his mom, a teacher at a Maspeth, Queens, school in District 75, which serves students with the most complex disabilities, went remote because of positive cases. A series of consecutive 24-hour closures stretched on for a week and a half.

Again last week, Enzo’s school closed for two days because of positive cases. 

“There’s no amount of planning anyone can do to make this manageable in any way,” Nicolai said. “The consistency is garbage.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has lauded his school reopening efforts. Indeed a big chunk of buildings are open, serving the families of pre-K through fifth graders, as well as District 75 students of all ages, who have opted to attend in person. (The city’s middle and high schools remain fully remote.)

But the reality on the ground is more complicated in the nation’s largest school system, where the majority of families opted to have their children learn exclusively from home. Many of the open buildings are seeing frequent temporary closures due to positive coronavirus cases, like those at the school where Nicolai works and the one her son attends. In the roughly four weeks since winter break, there were 722 building closures for at least 10 days, according to public data from Feb. 2. Some schools have experienced multiple closures.

To be sure, about 38% of the roughly 1,052 open schools have experienced no closures of any kind since buildings reopened in December, according to education department figures. But overall, 53% of open elementary and District 75 schools have experienced closures of two to 10 days. And when schools have faced a 24-hour closure, that has led to a multi-day closure three-quarters of the time. 

The disruptions have very real consequences for students, families and teachers. It’s not only a challenge for working families to figure out child care arrangements, but it’s also hard for teachers to pivot their lesson plans with little lead time. Often, teachers  find out about closures only the night before, and then have to juggle multiple groups of students they typically see on different days. (The closures also might mean that students in Cohort A, for example, have attended fewer in-person days than their Cohort B counterparts, which can be tricky for teachers to manage.)

And, of course, the closures can throw students off track as they toggle between schedules and different modes of learning. For many of these children, they have their in-person schedule, a particular remote schedule on the hybrid days they are home, and a different remote schedule when their entire building is closed.

Nicolai’s son is struggling with the lack of consistency, his mom said. To complicate matters, his school has switched around teachers several times. 

In November, when the city’s 3% coronavirus positivity rate closed all campuses, the school Nicolai’s son attends shuffled students too, mixing children who had been fully remote and those who were hybrid, attending a mix of in-person and remote schooling. The children who had been fully remote were further along in the curriculum than their hybrid counterparts, parents at the school said, at which point some families pulled their children from the hybrid classes mid-year — preferring the routine of fully remote learning to the uncertainty surrounding the hybrid model.  

Enzo Nicolai’s Brooklyn school shuttered for several days in January. (Courtesy of Maria Nicolai)

Because enough fourth graders dropped out of in-person learning at Enzo’s French dual-language program, he was offered a seat in person, five days a week after the winter break. But even that has been interrupted due to closures. Meanwhile, Nicolai is struggling with the same ping-ponging at her job. 

“I have a kid who is a quick learner. But he’s lost a lot of learning. He’s watching bug videos on YouTube while he’s supposed to be paying attention to his teachers,” said Nicolai, who originally chose hybrid so her son, an only child, could see his friends. 

“As [an in-person] teacher, you can’t get into the routine, you can’t do lesson planning, you can’t do scaffolding. You have to turn on a dime,” Nicolai continued. “Trying to teach virtually versus teaching live requires two entirely different skill sets and methods of preparation, and it’s hard to do without planning, especially in the middle of a unit. It’s like you have to double plan each lesson to make it effective.”

Nicolai had a “lofty goal” of teaching fractions using the pancakes that her students get through the school’s “breakfast in the classroom” program. Using real world examples that her students can manipulate with their hands helps. But when her building closed, she had to ditch the lesson.

After New York City’s all-school shutdown in November, de Blasio removed the 3% threshold for a systemwide closure, but left in place the school-specific shutdowns, with one case shutting an individual classroom and two cases potentially shuttering an entire building. To bolster safety measures, de Blasio expanded COVID-19 testing of randomly selected students and staff from monthly to weekly at the reopened schools. With the increased testing, along with rising coronavirus rates, the number of positive cases being identified has, of course, gone up — taxing the Situation Room team responsible for determining  school closures.

The wave of individual school closures and their disruptions have upset many families — but for different reasons. Some believe that closing an entire building for more than a week because of two “unlinked” cases is arbitrary and overly conservative. A group of students and parents marched from City Hall to the teachers union headquarters in Lower Manhattan Wednesday to demand the city change that threshold and immediately reopen middle and high schools. Other families believe the opposite: Not only are the temporary school closures warranted as coronavirus cases rise, but the city should go further in shuttering all buildings during this time and provide more consistency that way.

“Our current closure protocol reflects a serious approach to preventing spread in a school and we feel confident that it is working,” education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said in an email. “We are constantly evaluating city health metrics, and continue to be guided by our highest priority of ensuring health and safety in our schools.”

Recent research suggests that schools are less likely to spread the coronavirus if the positivity rates in the surrounding community are low. Studies also show that following strategies, such as social distancing, mask-wearing and improved ventilation, could help minimize transmission in schools even when rates are higher in the surrounding community, epidemiologists say, noting that doesn’t mean there would be no spread in schools.  

Even before this school year started, many principals had warned de Blasio that offering both hybrid and fully remote options would tax their staff and make it difficult to provide a strong experience in either setting. But the uncertainty for the children attending in person has further stressed school communities. Across the country, families with children learning in the hybrid model were less satisfied than those attending school fully in person or fully online, according to a survey released last month by Education Next, a journal based at Harvard, which reached more than 2,400 respondents. Hybrid families also had more concerns about their children’s academic performance and emotional well-being than other families. 

De Blasio’s response to concerns about hybrid schooling has been to push for five days a week of in-person learning, and roughly 250 schools are offering that to all students. School closures, however, still add a layer of uncertainty for those children.   

Rabi Whitaker, an earth science teacher at a high school in East New York, Brooklyn, and a mom to a second grader, has been frustrated by how the shifting policies have affected where she works and her daughter’s education. As de Blasio pushed for elementary schools to offer more in-person learning after the new year, classes at her daughter’s Prospect Heights school were combined and reprogrammed. Her daughter got a new teacher after the winter break, even though she still attends in person only two to three times a week. 

But she barely saw her new teacher in person last month. The school closed down because of positive cases the day after the winter break. After initially being told the school would be shut for a day or two, they learned at 10 p.m. the night before her daughter was expected to return that the closure would extend to 10 days. (Her daughter also had to quarantine for two weeks in December because of a classroom closure.)

“There has been very little continuity in her education this year, through absolutely no fault of her teachers,” Whitaker said. “Perhaps her school hasn’t done the most brilliant job handling the programming challenges, but it has been the mayor’s shifting goalposts and changing promises that created this situation.”

Case in point, when Whitaker signed her daughter up for hybrid instruction, the mayor vowed there would be live instruction on remote days. He then walked back that promise because an agreement with the union that in-person teachers would not have to teach remotely as well created significant staffing challenges. 

Whitaker had opted to send her daughter to school because she thought she would be teaching in person this year.  But since the end of November, she has been working from home because of high school campus closures, so child care is no longer an issue for her. But she’s not able to help her daughter with school during the day. When the entire school is closed because of COVID-19 cases, there’s more live instruction, and she and her daughter prefer it to the remote days during hybrid learning.

“It’s been hard going back and forth between those two models of remote learning,” Whitaker said. 

She thinks the shutdowns and quarantines are necessary, and would prefer the entire system go remote for a “predictable” amount of time, in combination with a more wide scale effort to provide economic and social support so that more people can stay home while vaccinations are underway. 

“As a high school teacher, I am frustrated,” Whitaker added. “The city has thrown so much of its time, energy, attention, and money behind the effort to open school buildings. Meanwhile the families of our high school students clearly told us — with their decisions to keep their children fully remote — that blended learning wasn’t going to work for them.”

More than 60% of high school students opted for fully remote learning at the start of the school year, according to estimates from the teachers union.

“But instead of responding to that with help for remote learners,” Whitaker said, “the city bought air purifiers that are now sitting in our indefinitely empty classrooms.”

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