No remote learning option for NYC next school year, de Blasio announces

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Porter look on as a teacher reads to a group of five students on a colorful rug. The teacher with the book is in the foreground, while the mayor and chancellor are to the right.
Mayor Bill de Blasio Chancellor Porter visit Brooklyn Pre-K students in class on March 23, 2021. De Blasio wants all students back in school this fall, and announced Monday that NYC won’t offer a remote option. (Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City schools will not offer a remote option for students next fall as city officials mount a full-court press to bring all students, teachers and staff back to their campuses full-time, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday morning.

The news comes as more than 60% of the city’s nearly 1 million public school students continue to learn from home full-time, with hundreds of thousands of children not stepping into a classroom for more than a year. But as coronavirus rates decline and vaccination rates rise — with children as young as 12 now eligible for the vaccine and those as young as age 2 potentially eligible in the fall — the city maintains that returning to buildings is not only safe but the most sound educational experience.

“You can’t have a full recovery without full strength schools, everyone back, sitting in those classroom, kids learning again,” de Blasio said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

De Blasio’s announcement clears up two major questions for next fall, as having no remote option also means that coronavirus-related remote teaching accommodations will no longer be on the table, officials confirmed.

While de Blasio and schools Chancellor Meisha Porter had indicated earlier this year that there would be a remote option, they had been sidestepping the question in recent weeks. Instead, they reiterated their hope that all students will return to school in person by Sept. 13.

With the vast majority of students learning remotely, it remains to be seen how many families will be hesitant to return this fall, even as the citywide coronavirus positivity rate, at 1.13%, has reached its lowest level since September. Some parents still have health and safety concerns, particularly as students under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines and not all school staff have been vaccinated.

De Blasio repeatedly emphasized on Monday that he is confident parents will return as the pandemic recedes.

“I don’t think parents want to live in the past,” he said at a press conference. “Everything that happened in the previous circumstance was based on a set of facts that don’t exist anymore.”

The announcement follows similar declarations across the country. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said all of the state’s students must return for in-person instruction next year. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teacher’s union, also recently called for the reopening of schools for full-time in-person instruction next school year.

But some districts, including Washington, D.C., will make a remote option available if families demonstrate a need to learn at home. And Success Academy, New York City’s largest charter network, will give families the option to learn remotely for at least the first marking period.

Questions still remain about what schools in the nation’s largest school system will look like next year. Parents and school leaders are awaiting guidance from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Preventions on social distancing, but de Blasio said Monday that he expects the CDC to relax social distancing rules in classrooms before the start of school. As of now, masks will still be required in schools, and some form of COVID-19 testing will remain in place, though schools will likely be selected at random rather than this year’s regular testing, officials said.

De Blasio said he is hopeful that the city can convince families to return by showing them what’s happening inside schools and is planning to let campuses open their doors to families starting next month, officials said.

“Come into your child’s school. See what’s going on, get the answers,” he said on MSNBC.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew called for such open houses in an op-ed last week, and was pleased that the education department was on board.

“There is no substitute for in-person instruction. NYC educators want their students physically in front of them,” Mulgrew said in a statement. “We want as many students back in school as safely possible.”

He still had concerns, however, for the “small number of students with extreme medical challenges.” For them, he said, “a remote option may still be necessary.”

De Blasio said the rules governing whether students with medical or emotional health issues could stay home would be the same as before the pandemic hit. Officials did not immediately respond to questions about whether there would continue to be classroom- or school-level closures if positive coronavirus cases pop up. And it’s unclear how instruction would be handled if students needed to stay home due to illness.

“We’re gonna work to figure out the right way to handle a kid who is home sick for anything,” the mayor told reporters. “I think there are ways we could do that with digital learning packages.”

Lower East Side parent leader Naomi Peña said her district has already been planning for next school year as they awaited further guidance from the city.

Knowing that many families might still be wary of returning, she and other parent leaders have been discussing ways to help families feel more comfortable. They had been discussing hosting virtual tours of buildings, said Peña, who serves as the president of the parent-led Community Education Council for District 1.

“Right now families aren’t making decisions based on facts, they’re making it best on assumptions,” said Peña, whose family started off fully remote. Once she and her mother were vaccinated, she felt comfortable sending her children back this spring.

A top education department official said last week that roughly 10% of city schools would be too overcrowded under current distancing guidelines to welcome back all of their students next fall, but that the city was working to figure out alternatives, including using auditoriums and gymnasiums or turning to community-based organizations for help.

Porter launched a series of town halls last week to hear parents’ concerns about the coming school year.

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