Field trips in NYC slowly return, championed by schools Chancellor Banks

A man bends down to talk to a young girl in the museum of natural history.
Schools Chancellor David Banks accompanies students from P.S. 46 on a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History. (Michael Elsen-Rooney / Chalkbeat)

It’s too cold to jump into the sea in November. But 7-year-old Sienna felt like she got the next best thing Tuesday when her Brooklyn public school took a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. 

“I can’t go in the ocean right now, so it just makes me happy I could see shows about the ocean and images and things,” said Sienna, a student at P.S. 46 in Fort Greene. “It makes me remember the ocean.”

The iconic life-sized 94-foot-long blue whale hanging from the ceiling of the cavernous room was a particular highlight.

“I was dreaming about her last night,” Sienna said.

Trips like Tuesday’s museum excursion have long been a staple of New York City schools. But after two and a half years in which field trips were canceled or largely curtailed because of COVID restrictions, educators and students are slowly reemerging from their classrooms and returning to cultural institutions across the five boroughs.

At the natural history museum, student field trips have increased markedly this school year compared to last year when full-time in-person school returned but trips by school bus remained off-limits until March. Still, visits from school groups are only about 50% of their pre-pandemic levels, according to Lisa Gugenheim, the museum’s director.

“We see this as a steady rise,” she said, “reaching out to teachers and principals and administrators, we hope that number will keep growing.” 

That’s also the hope of schools Chancellor David Banks, who repeatedly emphasizes the importance of public schools using New York City as a classroom. He made an appearance at the museum Tuesday to plug that idea.

“It is very important our school leaders and families know that learning exists outside the four walls of our schools, and they’ve got to take full advantage of institutions like this,” Banks said. 

A first museum visit for some students

At P.S. 46, where 83% of students receive free or reduced price lunch and a sizable share live in homeless shelters or doubled up with other families, the return of field trips has been a joyful way for both students and parents to get out and explore the city after several difficult years filled with so much isolation, educators and families said.

Some of the third graders on Tuesday’s outing hadn’t been on a school trip since kindergarten,  said Alex Braverman, the school’s principal. “For them this is huge.”

Parent Stephanie Roman accompanied the group as a chaperone, and got to see her son “light up” when he walked in. 

“This is his first time at the museum,” said Roman, who jumped in to help her son spell “whale” on a worksheet. She clarified that the 21,000-pound creature hanging from the ceiling was called a “blue,” rather than a “bloop,” whale.

Some students looked on in awe at giant, lifelike reproductions of sea lions and seals, while others in the school’s dual-language program discussed how to translate the word “shark” into Spanish.

Teacher Christine Scalise helped prepare kids for the experience by going over museum manners and walked them through a virtual tour of the ocean hall in advance of Tuesday’s trip, she said.

Museum officials said that resources like the virtual tours, along with extensive professional development for teachers, help make the institution a more appealing field trip destination and connect its exhibits to what kids are learning in class.

The museum is also preparing to open a massive new wing in 2023 complete with a live butterfly vivarium and insectarium full of both live and replica insects.

“It’s going to be a huge promoter of people coming back again,” said Ellen Futter, the museum’s president. “It very much heightens the instinct and desire to go on a journey of discovery and learning…I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more charming or moving than when these butterflies land on a young person. The delight, the joy.”

Covering costs for school trips

Though Banks is encouraging schools to take field trips, the outings are largely organized at the individual school-level in the city’s public school system. Braverman said his school focuses on finding free or low-cost excursions that families can duplicate in their own time without going out-of-pocket. 

The city pays for school buses, and P.S. 46 uses school funds to cover other trip entry fees, though the natural history museum is free for student field trips. Braverman also encourages his school’s families to take trips at other times, tapping federal funding for students in temporary housing to provide them with “culture passes” that get them into dozens of institutions for free, he said.

Banks said he’s working with the city’s district superintendents —including organizing a session with all 45 of them at the museum of natural history — to encourage more schools to plan field trips.

“It’s important for me it’s not just the kids from the Upper West Side who come here,” Banks said. “We often talk about how vast and diverse New York City is, but you don’t know it if you don’t get outside the four walls of your school.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

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