In light of new federal guidelines relaxing distancing requirements inside classrooms, New York City’s public school system will open another window for students in full-time remote learning to opt-in for hybrid learning, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said at a press conference Friday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released new guidance earlier Friday saying that young students need only to stay three feet apart from each other, instead of six, as long as everyone is wearing a mask. Students and adult staff are still advised to stay six feet apart, and students should stay six feet apart when eating lunch or in common areas like auditoriums.
The new CDC guidance also advises that only middle and high school students remain six feet apart from each other in higher-risk circumstances such as in communities where COVID-19 transmission is abundant, and where classmates cannot stay in cohorts where they only see the same people throughout the day.
“The CDC has evaluated the evidence, and has decided that the distance between children in our public school classrooms can go from six feet to three feet. This obviously opens up a world of possibilities for bringing kids back,” de Blasio said.
The new opt-in window will commence Monday, with newly-enrolled students to return to hybrid learning sometime in April, de Blasio said.
While all students across K-12th grade can opt to return to hybrid learning, the first wave to return will be limited to 3K, Pre-K, elementary, and District 75 students. Middle and high schoolers can also opt to return but since the guidance is more complicated, their return date will be determined later, de Blasio said.
“This is a brand new standard. We have a lot to work out,” he acknowledged. The vast majority of the city’s 960,000 public school students are enrolled in full-time remote learning.
Porter said individual schools will determine their capacity for admitting more in-person students based on staffing and physical space available.
“I also understand that each school community is different, and we will be flexible and take into account the specific needs of each school,” she said.
De Blasio said the return of more remote-learning students to classrooms will not dramatically change the careful planning that principals and teachers have instituted, after the chaotic return to school in the fall. Last year, De Blasio had said remote-learning students would have four chances to opt-in to hybrid learning, then changed those plans as staffing shortages became apparent.
Still, the mayor’s announcement seemed to come as a surprise to the unions representing the city’s principals and teachers.
“Our city’s school leaders recognize the importance of welcoming as many students back into buildings as possible, and we thank the Chancellor for pledging the DOE’s full support to principals in the coming weeks. Once again, detailed plans should have been shared with principals prior to any citywide announcement, and it is essential that the DOE immediately issues further guidance as principals will now be responsible for answering their community’s pressing questions,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, in a statement Friday. “Our school leaders are up for the many challenges ahead, so long as the city communicates clearly and empowers them to do what they know is best for their schools.”
The United Federation of Teachers union issued a statement online saying they want the state to approve de Blasio’s plan: “As educators, we plan before we go to work each day. But as usual, this mayor has come out with another proclamation without any plan or authority to proceed. We will wait for New York State to weigh in as we continue to do the real work of keeping our school communities safe and do things properly in these uncertain times,” the statement said.
It’s not clear if the state will weigh in on de Blasio’s plan, since state officials have told other New York officials that classroom distancing requirements are under local control.
“We have received guidance from the State of New York that the six feet to three feet with desks in a classroom would be a local health department decision,” Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon told CNY Central last month.
The state Education Department did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.