As de Blasio eyes return of full-time school next year, he also leaves door open to remote learning

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to return to full-time school in 2021, which will depend on a variety of factors, including the city’s vaccination efforts and whether families feel safe returning. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Of all the reasons to hope for a quick vaccine rollout to beat back the coronavirus, parents can add this to the list: the return to full-time school. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes the fall will mark the return of a regular school schedule “for every student that wants to learn in person”  — but that will depend on some big variables, including the city’s vaccination efforts and how COVID-19 continues to spread. 

“School doesn’t start until September. If we’re in an environment where the city is overwhelmingly vaccinated, we’re able to bring school back as it was,” he said Monday at a press conference. “Same physical proportion, the same number of kids in classrooms. We’re able to do that kind of thing, and we’ll keep other important precautions in place, obviously.”

With about half of the current school year left, many principals and families are already raising questions about what next year might look like to avoid last-minute scheduling and staffing scrambles from this past fall. Some potentially huge hurdles remain before schools can get back to full capacity — and de Blasio is leaving open the possibility of giving families the option, once again, of keeping their children home to learn exclusively online. 

The city is aiming to put shots in the arms of 5 million New Yorkers by June, an effort that could be hampered by limited supply of the vaccine, challenges accessing healthcare in many underserved communities, and hesitancy among some. (The vaccine has been found to be safe and effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, mutations of the coronavirus could lead to more spread in the short-term, as well as the potential to need modified vaccines — something researchers are already working on.  

The extent of in-person learning next fall will likely hinge on a range of other factors, too, including how many families feel comfortable returning to buildings, especially as a vaccine for children remains unavailable, and the city’s overall budget situation.

With the landscape so uncertain, de Blasio admitted there may still be a need for remote school next fall. 

“As we get closer, we’ll determine, of course, if there’s a remote piece needed as well,” he said. “That will have everything to do with what’s happening in the general situation with COVID, and what parents are looking for.”

While the in-person learning remains the “goal,” Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said, “This whole notion of virtual learning, remote learning, electronic distance learning, that’s going to stay with us well beyond the end of the pandemic because it does also provide students with an opportunity to enhance their learning, personalize their learning, do some self-directed investigation.”

For example, a group of students might be able to meet virtually in a Google classroom during the evening instead of having to get together, he said. 

“We’re looking at this being a component of what the new normal looks like post-pandemic in a good way, not to replace in-person learning, but to keep the best parts of what we really built in terms of capacity and keep that going into the future,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, the mayor has insisted that returning as many students to school buildings as possible is key to helping students catch up and to jumpstarting the city’s economy. The start of the current school year was delayed twice this fall, middle schools will reopen at the end of February for the first time in months, and high school buildings have been completely shuttered since November. The city’s public schools lost about 4% of enrollment, or 43,000 children, from the year before, and roughly 70% of its 960,000 students opted to learn from home full time.

A document that City Hall officials circulated before the mayor’s State of the City speech last month suggested a continuation of the hybrid model — in which students attend school in-person on some days and remotely on others — is a strong possibility if vaccination efforts fall flat.

The document states that increased ventilation, masks, and social distancing will be necessary “until our vaccination effort drives our city to full community immunity.” If social distancing rules remain in place this fall, schools may not be able to accommodate all students and staff in the building simultaneously.

Reopening this fall with a hybrid model already has a precedent: Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, is planning to take that approach.

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