Details And Concerns Emerge On NYC Schools’ New Opt-In Policy

Families who want to send their kids back into public school buildings can sign up to do so starting Wednesday. The new opt-in period runs through April 7th. Mayor Bill de Blasio said students in 3K, elementary school, and District 75 programs that serve children with severe disabilities will be able to join their in-person peers in classrooms before the end of April. 

‘I’ve heard … from many parents who want the opportunity to send their kids back,” de Blasio said at a news conference Monday. “That opportunity has now arrived.”

Currently about 315,000 out of the total 960,000 NYC public student population participate in some kind of in-person learning. The last time families were able to opt-in to in-person learning was in November

De Blasio said new social distancing guidelines released by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention Friday will allow more elementary-age students to fit into classrooms. He’s urging principals not to reduce the number of days students are already in-person in order to bring additional students in.

“So, if the kid, for example, now has five days a week, they’ll continue to get that,” he said. “As we bring in more kids to the maximum extent possible, we’d like them to be five-days-a-week. Some schools that will be more possible than other schools, [it] really depends on the space situation and that school, and how many kids are already in.”

“We are very confident that we are prepared to accept more students in classes,” said Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter. 

While de Blasio is opening the opt-in period to all students, he did not say when additional middle and high school students would be able to return, noting the complexity of reopening buildings to older students. Studies have shown that the risk of coronavirus transmission increases as children get older. Staffing has also been harder in the upper grades, given the unique needs of specialized classes. 

In fact, high school buildings just opened their doors to in-person students on Monday for the first time since November. About 55,000 of the city’s 280,000 public high schoolers were expected back, though parents note that many of those students will be working on screens in classrooms as their teachers continue to teach remotely. 

De Blasio first announced the new opt-in period on Friday, just hours after the CDC said young students only need to be separated by three feet rather than six. Adults must stay six feet apart from each other and from students. Older students can be three feet apart if community transmission of the coronavirus is low. 

Many parents who have been clamoring for another opt-in period applauded the decision. But some teachers and administrators said they’re concerned about safety and logistics. 

Speaking to reporters outside Manhattan high schools on Monday morning, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said he’s still reviewing the new rules from the CDC. He said a top concern is how to handle breakfast and lunch. The new guidelines say students wearing masks can be spaced three feet apart from each other, except when they eat. But students have been eating meals in their classrooms this year. Mulgrew called the guidelines “a little obtuse,” saying federal officials should have talked to more “people who work in schools” when crafting the new rules.

Andrea Castellano, who’s teaching both in-person and remote classes at a Brooklyn elementary school, said she’s worried about the risk of increasing class sizes, especially since there isn’t total compliance with other safety measures. For example, she said students’ masks often fall off, and even adults get lax from time to time. “100 percent of people are not going to do the right thing 100 percent of the time.” 

Administrators said they’re also concerned about revising schedules and classroom assignments for the third or fourth time since school began. 

“Our city’s school leaders recognize the importance of welcoming as many students back into buildings as possible,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council for School Supervisors and Administrators. But he said the mayor and chancellor should have discussed the decision with principals before announcing the changes to the public. “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.”

Principals said they’re especially worried about maintaining the required services and teacher ratios for students with disabilities. Parents have said their schools are already struggling to provide them with the number of teachers their children with disabilities are guaranteed under federal law. 

Meanwhile, some parents said expanding access to in-person school won’t be effective until the city changes its two-case trigger for shutting down schools

De Blasio has said he’s reviewing the rule but has not announced any changes. On Monday, 245 school buildings were closed because of positive cases.