NYC schools go remote Thursday for staff training as wildfire smoke engulfs region

The Midtown Manhattan skyline looks yellowish-brown because of air quality issues.
Wildfire smoke from Canada enveloped Midtown Manhattan on Wednesday. School staff will not be required to report to school buildings on Thursday. (Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat)

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New York City educators will not be expected to report to their buildings in person on Thursday, as wildfire smoke from Canada engulfed the region in a thick haze leading to the worst air pollution on record

They will instead participate virtually in staff training on what’s known on the school calendar as “Anniversary Day/Chancellor’s Conference Day,” according to a text message the teachers union sent to its members on Wednesday. 

Students were already scheduled to be off from school.

“The DOE, with our encouragement, is making Chancellor’s Conference Day tomorrow fully remote for all staff,” the text message said. (The union sends texts to teachers to let them know about cancellations and snow days.)

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks confirmed the move at a press conference alongside Mayor Eric Adams Wednesday evening.

The air quality index hit 484 at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Adams said. It was believed to be the highest index level since the 1960s. 

Anything above 300 is considered hazardous, officials said. The index tops out at 500.

Adams encouraged all New Yorkers to remain indoors, if possible, especially elderly and younger children.

The decision to switch to remote staff training came after pressure from educators, who launched a petition, and Rita Joseph, a former teacher and leader of City Council’s education committee. City officials signaled earlier on Wednesday afternoon to prepare for a remote pivot, telling staff to bring materials and laptops home with them.

Still, some schools operate programs for children in partnership with community organizations on staff development days. Whether Department of Youth and Community Services-funded programs such as COMPASS, Beacon, and Cornerstone open on Thursday is up to the program’s discretion, city officials said. If they’re running, all activities should be indoors. The programs should check with their school partners about whether the building will be open. If it’s closed, these programs may offer remote activities, if they elect to do so.

Gov. Kathy Hochul indicated on Wednesday that the smoke could continue for days and described the situation as an “emergency crisis.” 

Officials said they would make a decision on Thursday about Friday’s school schedules.

“We’re taking it day-by-day,” Banks said.

Elementary and middle school students were already scheduled to be off from school on Friday for “Clerical Day.” Students attending standalone District 75 schools, which serve children with more complex disabilities, also have the day off.

But thousands of students attending high school are scheduled to report to buildings on Friday.

The wildfire smoke has already disrupted some school programming. On Wednesday, city officials canceled outdoor school activities, including athletic competitions, recess, and field trips — a decision that was announced on Twitter just before midnight on Tuesday. Banks also postponed a town hall meeting in the Bronx.

Health officials have warned that the polluted air poses greater risks to young people, the elderly, and those with pre-existing breathing issues, such as asthma. Nearly 1 in 10 public school students in grades K-8 have “active asthma,” according to the city’s health department, though the rates are higher among Black and Latino students and disproportionately affect children living in low-income neighborhoods. 

The city’s health commissioner, Ashwin Vasan, said children may be susceptible to air pollution because their lungs are still developing. Officials urged residents to stay indoors.

“Right now, our health guidance to all New Yorkers is to limit outdoor activity as much as possible,” Vasan said. “For people who must be outdoors, a high quality mask like an N95, a KN95 or a KF94 is recommended.”

Vasan expressed concern for New Yorkers who were feeling rattled by the air pollution.

“If you feel anxious, if you feel worried, that’s totally understandable,” he said. He encouraged New Yorkers to call the 988 crisis hotline for help, if needed.

Amy Zimmer contributed.

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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